February 9, 2022

Proposal to study public utilities failing to gain traction so far

A proposed study of publicly owned electric utilities seems to have shorted out in the Public Regulation Commission, but it might have some juice left in the Legislature.

The Public Regulation Commission sent a letter late last week to legislative leaders, indicating overseeing the study should be the Legislature’s responsibility.

“We do not believe that the Commission has authority over the subject matter of the study, nor should it exercise authority given its regulatory responsibilities,” the letter said.

House Memorial 20 and Senate Memorial 10, which deal with the study, hadn’t advanced out of committees as of Tuesday.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, said enough time remained in the session, and “I think we’re still fine” in getting a memorial on the study through the Legislature.

“I do think it’s still alive,” Stefanics said. The 30-day legislative session ends Feb. 17.

The lawyer who helped craft the request to the commission, Mariel Nanasi of New Energy Economy, was far less optimistic. “I think that there’s no chance,” she said. “It’s a short session, and there are other bills that have taken priority.” 

The study of the pros and cons of turning investor-owned utilities into publicly owned entities was advocated by 16 legislators in a petition last month to the regulation commission. At the same time, the two memorials for such a study sit in the Legislature.

Proponents say publicly owned electric utilities are more inclined than investor-owned utilities to keep customer rates down, better able to put profits back into local communities and more likely to sell wind- and sun-generated electricity to other states at a profit for New Mexico.

Opponents argue, among other things, against government control of electric service. Publicly owned power refers to state-owned electric service or service owned by municipalities. 

The investor-owned utilities that serve New Mexico are Public Service Company of New Mexico, Southwestern Public Service and El Paso Electric.

Stefanics said Senate Memorial 10 is at a standstill, but House Memorial 20, which is a duplicate bill, can still emerge from the House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee. A memorial carries no weight of law but is a call for a study or some other action.

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, wrote in an email she has talked with the head of the committee that controls the House memorial and he told her he is working on scheduling a hearing. State Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, chairman of the committee, declined comment Tuesday.

Legislators hoped the Public Regulation Commission would work with the Legislative Council Service to put together the study.

Commission Chairman Joseph Maestas of Santa Fe said Tuesday the commission doesn’t oppose a study but believes it’s a legislative task. The commission could provide data for the study, according to the letter, but shouldn’t oversee it.

Brian Condit, executive director of the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, said the state should study crime and education reform before taking on another project.

“We are not enthusiastic about it at all,” Condit said of a system of publicly run utilities. “Some things just don’t work well with the government and political influence” behind them, he added. Condit’s organization is a subsidiary of the AFL-CIO.

Southwestern Public Service and parent company Xcel Energy said in a letter to the commission they are disappointed the legislative initiative intimates investor-owned utilities aren’t doing a good job. Southwestern and Xcel “are proud of their record on matters of the energy transition, renewable performance, low rates, and high performance for customers,” the letter said.

Nanasi said this legislative session has considered the topic of energy with “false solutions like hydrogen” when publicly owned electric power is the way to clean energy and low rates. She said Colorado is among states studying it, and Connecticut already has conducted research on it.

The “old system” of investor-owned utilities “has failed to meet the moment,” she said, calling for renewable energy.

“It could be so exciting and hopeful,” she said. “And we could be the epicenter of that.”