February 17, 2020

PRC reform bill heads to the Senate after narrow passage in House

A proposal to make structural changes to the Public Regulation Commission passed the House floor with a narrow vote of 36-34 after a three-hour debate Sunday evening.

HB 11 is sponsored by Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe. It would restructure the PRC with the aim of streamlining operations and making the commission more efficient.

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The bill “strengthens and simplifies the Public Regulation Commission,” Small said, adding that the bill “appropriately separates the decision making function from the advocacy function.” Small said he met with former and current PRC staff, including commissioners; and considered other other utility commissions from other states in drafting the legislation.

HB 11 would create a new stand-alone agency, entitled the Office of Public Regulation Commission Regulatory Affairs, and move five divisions currently under the PRC to the new agency, including the legal division, the utility division, the transportation division, the administrative services division and the consumer relations division. The new office would be administratively attached to the existing state Regulation and Licensing Department, though the employees would not physically move to a new office. The chief of staff of the office would be appointed and removed by the governor.

The bill would also create the Commission Resources Division within the PRC, which would consist of staff necessary for carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the commission. The bill proposes the division chief of staff would be selected from a list of candidates approved by the governor, with confirmation from the state Senate.

The legislation would create “clear, consistent rules of the road for private sector investment in our state,” Small said.

Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said the bill has “serious constitutional problems” while discussing an amendment to the bill brought by Small that would make a number of small changes to the bill.

“We already have a process taking place in November where if we’re wanting to change the constitution, the voters will have a chance in November to do that,” Montoya said, referring to a proposed constitutional amendment that would see the PRC transition from a five-member elected body to a three-member body, with commissioners appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. New Mexico residents will vote on the proposal on the November ballot.

Montoya also took issue with a provision of the bill that would see the PRC chief of staff selected from a list of candidates approved by the governor.

“As long as authority is transferred from this stand alone agency and put under another department, this will be challenged,” Montoya said.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, was also skeptical of the reorganization proposal in the bill.

“I fail to see how shuffling these chairs over to the executive branch, without commensurate increases to make the salaries and benefits of these positions competitive — how is that going to help, playing musical chairs?” Scott asked.

“The reorganization satisfies a key step that needs to be taken, which is that these positions need more security,” Small said, adding that the current budget bill includes an increase in funding for the PRC.

“One of the core issues that has caused this instability is the day-to-day managerial responsibility of the elected commissions in hiring, firing, and selecting the division directors and chief of staff,” Small said, which has “undermined the professionalization that we all agree is important at the PRC.”

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The bill proved contentious among both Democrats and Republicans in the House. Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said he was “stymied” by the legislation.

“There was no legislative input that went into it,” he said. Garcia said he was part of the PRC reorganization committee in the early 2000’s.

“This was a very meticulous, very deliberate process,” Garcia said of the committee’s work. “In all sincerity, I can’t find myself voting for this piece of legislation, which did not have one day of legislative input.”

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, argued that the bill would bring beneficial change to the state.

“We all admitted tonight that there is a dysfunction at the PRC,” Stapleton said. “This is a step to create an environment at the PRC to properly regulate the entities that are so crucial to our everyday lives.”

The bill ultimately passed by a vote of 36-34. It heads to the Senate next.