In Favor of PRC Constitutional Amendment (Constitutional Amendment 1)

Opinion By Richard Barish, Rio Grande Chapter Political Chair, Sierra Club

Constitutional Amendment 1 would return the PRC from an elected body to an appointed body. The Sierra Club supports the amendment.

If the amendment passes, the number of PRC commissioners will be reduced from five to three. The commissioners will be appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the Senate. The commissioners will be appointed to staggered six-year terms and can only be removed by impeachment for accepting anything of value from a regulated entity or for malfeasance or neglect of duty.

No more than two commissioners can be of the same political party. Commissioners cannot have a financial interest in a public utility in this state or elsewhere and shall not have been employed by a commission-regulated entity at any time during the two years prior to appointment. They have to possess competence in relevant areas and meet the education and experience requirements set forth in the implementing legislation.

The governor will select the commissioners from a list of nominees given to her by a PRC Nominating Committee in a procedure similar to that for the selection of judges. The Nominating Committee will have seven members selected by leaders in the legislature of both parties and administration members. The member appointed by the governor has to be a member of an Indian nation, tribe or pueblo. Members must be knowledgeable about utility regulation and cannot be employed by or on behalf of a regulated utility.

The elected PRC replaced an appointed Public Utility Commission about twenty years ago. The elected PRC is, and seemingly always has been, dysfunctional. We’ve had commissioners with little or no expertise in the very complicated and technical area of utility regulation.  We’ve had commissioners whose votes seem to just depend on who they are getting along with on that day.  We’ve had commissioners who are flat out corrupt.

With an appointed commission, there is a high likelihood that we will get a more professional commission with greater expertise in utility regulation, not politicians with minimal qualifications. We will get reasoned decisions from the Commission that are based on the law, not politics or whim.  Attorneys and expert witnesses who we work with who appear before utility commissions throughout the west prefer to appear before appointed commissions for that reason.

Most states have concluded that appointed is better and have appointed utility commissions — Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi are some of the only states with elected commissions. The current and former commissioners we most respect, including Cynthia Hall and Doug Howe, support this amendment. You can read an op-ed by Commissioners Hall and Fischmann here. The law contains safeguards to limit the influence of regulated utilities. It constrains the governor by limiting her choices to nominees from a bipartisan nominating commission and by requiring specified expertise and experience of commissioners. The PRC constitutional amendment deserves our support.