February 19, 2020

PRC reform bill dies in Senate committee

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A proposal to restructure the Public Regulation Commission died in the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee after a two-plus hour debate. The bill was tabled by a vote of 5-4.

Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe presented HB 11 to the committee Tuesday afternoon. Small and Trujillo told the committee the bill would help address staffing issues at the PRC and make the commission more efficient. The commission currently has a 19 percent employee vacancy rate.

“We all know we need a strong, stable, safe Public Regulation Commission, with independence, that is able to carry out these important functions that directly impact the health and safety of New Mexicans,” Small said. 

HB 11 would have created a new stand-alone agency, entitled the Office of Public Regulation Commission Regulatory Affairs, and would have moved 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 have been administratively attached to the existing state Regulation and Licensing Department, though the employees would not have physically moved to a new office. The chief of staff of the office would have been appointed and removed by the governor.

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

The bill passed the House floor with a narrow vote of 36-34 after a three-hour debate late Sunday evening.

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

A number of PRC staff, including the current acting Chief of Staff, Jason Montoya, and PRC commissioners Valerie Espinoza and Theresa Becenti Aguilar spoke against the bill.

“We just lost a PhD to PNM, and prior to that, our attorney left to work for PNM,” Espinoza said. “The fix here today is to give us the budget we need. Give us the salaries that are required to retain and promote from within, so that employees won’t have to leave for higher-paying jobs.”

Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants seemed skeptical of the bill after hearing PRC staff concerns.

“Have you all tried to get together and work something out?” Sanchez said. “This committee insists on that. You have to have both sides to work these things out.”

Small responded that he has been in dialogue with current and former PRC staff and commissioners who support the bill. He also stated that no current classified employees would lose their jobs.

Committee members expressed concerns about provisions of the bill that would have enabled the governor to participate in the selection of chiefs of staff for the two new departments created under the bill, and would have moved some of the duties of the PRC to the Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD).

Sen. Greg Fulfer, R-Jal, said he had “a lot of problems with this going over to RLD.”

“RLD runs more businesses out of my part of the state than any other government agency,” Fulfer said. “I have a problem with the PRC because they don’t seem to [hold companies] accountable for providing service, they don’t hold enough staff for the amount of work going on, and they’re constantly six months behind.”

“But RLD is 10 times worse than PRC, to me,” he said. “I can name five companies that have left in the last eight months, because of RLD. To me, we’re moving the PRC to a worse category.” 

Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, linked the bill to the recent back-and-forth between the PRC and investor-owned utility PNM about the fate of the San Juan Generating Station, calling the dispute the “800 lb gorilla in the room.”

RELATED: State Supreme Court: PRC must apply ETA to San Juan case

Sharer also called into question the timing of the bill, pointing 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.

“Why is it so urgent to do it today? It feels to me like this is purely punitive,” he said. “They didn’t follow our instructions, and so we sued them. The governor sued them, some legislators [sued them]. They’ve not bowed to the whims of the powers on high, let’s take away their authority to hire their own staff.”

The committee tabled the bill by a vote of 5-4, with Democratic Senator Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Sanchez voting with Republicans to table it.