Dysfunction at the PRC puts New Mexico’s clean energy plan at risk

Dysfunction and a lack of expertise within the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) threaten to undermine the state’s ambitious plan to flip the switch from coal to reenewable power. 

The Energy Transition Act — the centerpiece of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s agenda to rein in greenhouse gas emissions — phases out coal, turbocharges solar and wind development, and provides funding to retrain displaced coal plant and mine workers. It has been hailed as one of the strongest climate measures in the country. 

But six months after Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law, its success appears jeopardized by the very regulatory body charged with overseeing its implementation. 

The powerful commission must vet every aspect of the plan: the closure of the San Juan Generating Station coal plant; the complex financing to pay for decommissioning and worker assistance; and every new energy project that will provide the replacement power. But when the first proposals came before the PRC in July, the commission chose to ignore the new law, leaving the state’s energy transition in limbo. The unusual move has sparked a political furor, pitting the PRC against the governor and Legislature and leading to calls for impeachment of three of the commissioners as well as a proposal by the governor to convert the PRC from an elected body to an appointed one. 

The law’s supporters say the commission’s handling of the plan reflects deep dysfunction that could slow the state’s renewables ramp-up and jeopardize aid for displaced workers. Lujan Grisham says she finds the PRC’s actions “baffling” and suspects that long-standing tensions between the commission and Public Service Co.

Lujan Grisham signs bill to transition NM to renewable energy

Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a sweeping bill that bumps the state’s use of renewable energy. The new law sets a standard to produce 50 percent of the state’s energy through renewable sources in the next ten years and 80 percent within the next 20 years. Beyond the push for more renewable energy, the law also allows the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) to issue bonds at lower interest rates to pay off debts associated with a coal powered plant in the northwest corner of the state. It also establishes a $20 million fund to help workers and communities that will be affected by the shutdown of the San Juan Generating Station. In the Roundhouse rotunda, where Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 489, lawmakers and advocates said the governor was relentless in getting the bill passed through the Legislature with as few changes as possible.

Senate sends gov. bill striking down local ‘right-to-work’ measures

New Mexico is not what is known as a “right-to-work” state, and the Legislature drove home that point Sunday night. The Senate voted 23-19 to approve House Bill 85, which permits employers and labor organizations in New Mexico to enter into agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment. Now the measure goes to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s well aware that 10 of the state’s 33 counties have adopted so-called right-to-work laws that say employees cannot be compelled to pay fees to a labor union that represents them on the job. The Senate struck back by approving the bill that strikes down these local measures. In some ways, the bill is as symbolic as the the city and county ordinances it seeks to void, merely reaffirming New Mexico’s labor laws.

Sweeping education reform heads to House floor

A sweeping K-12 education reform bill that would raise salaries for New Mexico teachers but could limit the growth of charter schools in the state’s urban areas is headed to the House floor. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee voted 11-3 to approve the measure, which would improve salaries for New Mexico’s 22,000 classroom teachers across the board over a period of years. “It’s about time we started paying our teachers like professionals,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of House Bill 5. Currently, teachers in the state’s three-tiered licensure system earn a base salary of $36,000 (Tier 1), $44,000 (Tier 2) and $54,000 (Tier 3). The bill would increase those salaries next year to $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000, respectively.

Major shift to renewable energy advances in Senate

Backers of the controversial Energy Transition Act — which is meant to ensure the shuttering of a massive coal-burning power plant in San Juan County and push New Mexico toward more reliance on renewable energy — won a victory Saturday when a state Senate committee gave it a positive recommendation following a four-hour debate. The Senate Conservation Committee voted 5-3 to give Senate Bill 489 a “do-pass” recommendation. Last year, the same committee killed a similar proposal. “This transition to renewable energy will not be easy,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. A major purpose of the legislation, he said, is “to lay out a just transition for impacted communities to move away from coal and towards a green energy economy.”

Public records bills include secrecy on lottery winners

State Sen. Pat Woods says big lottery winners can turn into losers, so he wants to conceal their identity from the public. His push for secrecy initially failed Tuesday when the Senate Public Affairs Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the proposal, Senate Bill 397. But then committee members reconsidered and advanced Woods’ bill in a 5-2 decision. “I hate hearing stories of people who win lottery prizes and are broke shortly thereafter,” said Woods, R-Broadview, in arguing for the state-sanctioned gambling operation to keep winners’ names private. He said those who claim jackpots often don’t know how to manage their money and are easy prey for con men and unscrupulous family members.

Energy bill seeks to aid switch from coal to renewables

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and several environmentalist groups on Thursday praised legislation aimed at ensuring the shuttering of the coal-burning San Juan Generating Station near Farmington and establishing ambitious targets for pushing New Mexico toward more reliance on renewable energy sources. The bill is intended to soften the financial hit both to the community surrounding the aging power plant and to Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest utility and majority owner of the plant, which is a major source of employment in Northwestern New Mexico. State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, on Thursday introduced the 83-page Energy Transition Act, which proposes to allow PNM to recover investments through selling bonds that would be paid off with a new “energy transition” charge for customers. It also seeks to provide funds to assist and re-train workers who lose jobs from the shutdown and sets a 2030 deadline for investor-owned utilities and rural electric co-ops in the state to derive 50 percent of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind energy. “The bill lays out the road map that will lead New Mexico from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a green economy,” Candelaria said in an interview.

After pushback, sponsor revamps state lottery bill

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria on Wednesday amended his controversial bill on the state lottery, adding a guarantee that at least $40 million a year from ticket sales would go for college scholarships. His initial proposal would have eliminated a section of state law requiring that 30 percent of gross lottery revenues be turned over each month for scholarships. That version of the bill came under fire. Funding for scholarships is the sole reason the New Mexico lottery exists. In response to complaints by students at the University of New Mexico and others, Candelaria revamped his Senate Bill 283 by designating guaranteed payments for the scholarship program.

Bill would reduce simple drug possession penalty

You’re a heroin addict and you’ve just been busted for having a small stash of heroin, which leads to a felony conviction. When you get out of jail, your probation and parole officer says you’ve got to find a job, stay out of trouble and pick yourself up by your bootstraps. But when you go looking for a job you find nobody will hire a convicted felon. Likewise, your felony conviction prevents you from getting public housing or other forms of public assistance. State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who is co-sponsoring a bill to reduce the penalty for simple possession of an illegal drug, said Tuesday a felony conviction amounts to “civil death.”

House gets bill to withhold names of victims

A bill to conceal the names of victims of certain violent crimes from public-records disclosure is headed to the New Mexico House of Representatives for consideration. Senate Bill 118 would create an exception regarding law enforcement records before charges are filed against any suspect. It would redact the names of victims and non-law enforcement witnesses from public records of crimes involving assault, stalking, rape and criminal sexual contact. The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-0 to support the bill, discussing it only briefly. The Senate approved the bill 41-0 last week.