September 9, 2020

Campaign pushing to change PRC

Some elections can devolve into popularity contests. But one issue on the ballot in New Mexico will be whether or not one of the state’s key regulatory bodies should be made up of elected or appointed officials. 

Currently, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is made up of five elected officials, each representing their own area of New Mexico. But voters will have the chance to decide whether or not to change the state’s constitution and make the commission a three-member body, with commissioners appointed by the governor. 

At least one mailer sent out to voters does not seem to explicitly advocate for one side or another, but does frame the issue as professionals versus politicians. 

“Look for constitutional amendment #1 on your ballot in the fall!” the mailer reads. 

It also compares health experts guiding Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic and states that the amendment “would require real experts with defined credentials to oversee our utilities, and these professionals would be prohibited from having any financial interest in any public utility.”

The PRC, which is independent from the governor’s office and the legislature, has been the target of scrutiny from other elected officials for years, and even more so since the Legislature passed what is now known as the Energy Transition Act, a step away from the state’s reliance on coal powered energy. 

The mailer that rhetorically asks voters, “qualified professionals or politicians?” was paid for by a group called Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers. The New Mexico Secretary of State’s office does not have a record of such a group registering as a political committee, but a spokesman for the office said the next deadline for groups to register is not until October. 

Bob Perls, a former New Mexico lawmaker and sponsor of a 1996 constitutional amendment  that created the PRC, said he thinks the push to change how the commission is made up was not well thought out. Like all New Mexico constitutional amendments, this one started as legislation. But Perls said there should have been a more in depth look at the pros and cons of appointed public officials. He said there should have been at least an interim legislative committee devoted to doing a “comprehensive analysis of all offices in the state” before the proposed amendment even went to legislators. 

Acknowledging dysfunction within the PRC in the past several years, Perls said making the PRC an appointed group may cause regrets years down the road. 

“I don’t think it makes sense to single out the PRC and assume that commissioners are going to be better or more responsive to the electorate, simply because they’re appointed,” he said. “I personally happen to support the current governor, but would the constitutional amendment even have passed, had Susana Martinez been governor?”

Perls said when he came up with the legislation to create the PRC in the 1990s it was an attempt to combine two separate regulatory commissions into one, complete with districts and ethical standards. 

Public Regulation Commission Chair Theresa Becenti-Aguilar (Diné) is currently serving her second stint on the commission. She was first appointed by Democratic former Gov. Bill Richardson and was later elected to serve a full term. In 2018 she was again elected to the commission. She said she’s worried that with a three-person, appointed commission, many of her constituents “will be left behind.”

“Once the PRC is downsized, you’re going to appoint bureaucrats instead of elected representatives of the people,” Becenti-Aguilar said. “These are regular people, such as myself.” 

The constitutional amendment also comes just after the state evicted the PRC from their offices. Since the PRC is its own independent body, there is no obligation for the state to provide the commission office space. 

State Senator Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, has been an outspoken critic of the PRC. He is also the original sponsor of the effort that eventually became the Energy Transmission Act. 

“This commission is politically and professionally dysfunctional,” Candelaria said. “It’s a sideshow in state government and it is a real material risk to our state economy, especially as we are in this period of economic recession, and looking at really serious initiatives to get us out of this, in terms of renewable energy and expanded transmission.

Candelaria said he understands the concern about a governor potentially stacking the commission, but that he sees them in the same role as judges. 

“No credible person, for example, really says that the governor exerts undue pressure on the judiciary, who she appoints,” Candelaria said. 

Judges in New Mexico are appointed by the governor, but they also run for retention. 

A spokesman for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office said draft ballots with the proposal’s language have not been completed yet. 

If passed, the PRC would be made up of three commissioners, with no more than two belonging to one political party.