Interview with Cynthia Hall
By Lance Chilton
Q. How do you campaign – what promises can you make regarding judicial decisions?
A. I can promise to properly weigh the evidence and apply the law the Commission is charged with enforcing. I can promise that the values on which I ran for office will guide my judgement to the extent possible and appropriate within the law in any given case. I can’t promise how I will vote in any given case, because I have a duty to deliberate on each case with my colleagues in open public meeting. Also, stating my position in advance in public could be grounds for a demand for me to recuse myself on the grounds of bias, depending on the circumstances. Q.How do you bring a new commissioner up to speed? A. There are minimum continuing education credits a commissioner must meet under New Mexico law (NMSA 8-8-3.2): (1) an ethics certificate course the first year and one 2-hour ethics course in subsequent years; and (2) 32 credits/year of coursework relevant to the work of the commission in courses provided by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. These are the formal requirements. Otherwise, they have to be guided informally by general counsel, the IT department (to learn how to look through the electronic docket system), and other Commissioners. For someone with no prior experience at the Commission, such as a past employee or someone who has practiced before the Commission or another [similar] Commission, it can be a slow learning curve.
Q. Do you ever ask a utility to lower its rates? Or just allow/disallow rate increases? Do utilities get cost of living increases?
A. If a case were to merit it, we could order (not ask!) a utility to lower its rates. I have never seen this in real practice. Ordinarily, we would disallow cost or profit recovery, or both, if we found the utility’s request was not supported by the evidence. Utilities do not get cost of living increases.
Q. Under the provisions of 2020 HB 386 [passed by the House and Senate and now on the Governor’s desk], there will be three appointed commissioners. Do you want to be one of them? A. Yes, absolutely!
Q. Do you think the current commissioners meet the required qualifications?
A. I prefer not to answer that, but here are the qualifications below. You can compare them with the Commissioners’ biographies on the PRC website to reach your own conclusions. “8-8-3.1. Qualifications of commissioners. A. In addition to other requirements imposed by law, in order to be elected or appointed as a commissioner, a person must be qualified for office by: (1) having at least ten years of professional experience in an area regulated by the commission or in the energy sector and involving a scope of work that includes accounting, public or business administration, economics, finance, statistics, engineering or law; or (2) having a total of ten years of combined professional experience as described in Paragraph (1) of this subsection and higher education resulting in at least a professional license or a baccalaureate degree from an institution of higher education that has been accredited by a regional or national accrediting body in an area regulated by the commission, including accounting, public or business administration, economics, finance, statistics, engineering or law. B. As used in this section, “professional experience” means employment in which the candidate or prospective appointee for commissioner regularly made decisions requiring discretion and independent judgment and: (1) engaged in policy analysis, research or implementation in an area regulated by the commission or in the energy sector; (2) managed, as the head, deputy head or division director, a federal, state, tribal or local government department or division responsible for utilities, transportation or construction; or (3) managed a business or organization regulated by the commission or in the energy sector that had five or more employees during the time it was managed by the candidate or prospective appointee.”
Q. Are there any impending important decisions to note? A. Yes, there are recommended decisions either already available to read on our e-Docket system advising the Commission on the San Juan Generating Station Abandonment case and on the Securitization financing methodology [those are the decisions referred to in the accompanying article as a beneficial “quid pro quo.”].
Q. How many staff does PRC have? How much can be done by staff without the commissioners involved?
A. We have 156 full time employee positions and a 21% vacancy rate. Staff presents in almost all cases before the commission. This means that the staff economists and engineers review all matters that rise to the level of Commissioner review, prepare written testimony which is filed in the e-Docket system (available for search by the public), and serve as witnesses in hearings conducted by hearing examiners. Staff attorneys present these cases to the hearing examiners and call on the staff economists and engineers as witnesses. These attorneys represent the public interest in these hearings. Upon concluding a hearing, the hearing examiners write a recommended decision (RD). All of these activities are conducted without involvement required of the Commissioners. Commissioners occasionally attend the hearings and either watch or sometimes ask cross-examination questions of witnesses and occasionally discuss cases with hearing examiners. The Commissioners’ role is to make the final decision in cases, ideally after reviewing all the evidence and advice. So a large amount of work is done by staff before Commissioners fulfill their role, which is essentially to sit as an appellate court with jurisdiction only over utility matters as defined by statute.
Q. How often does a commissioner have to recuse him/herself?
A. It’s fairly rare. One commissioner had an ownership interest in a water company, so always had to recuse himself from water cases. Q. HB 386 removes the fire marshal and the resulting income from PRC. What good and bad effects will that have? A. I couldn’t predict, except for the typical delay in moving offices, if in fact their offices will move, which I know nothing about. I’m sure the fire marshal personnel will continue to do a professional job wherever they are located. I personally think the Homeland Security office is a better fit for this type of government service.