Opinion By Pia Gallegos, Member of the State Central Committee, Democratic Party of New Mexico
The PRC is a constitutionally mandated body of five Commissioners who regulate NM utility companies. Voters in each of five PRC Districts around the state elect a Commissioner to represent their district. For every case before the PRC, an independent Hearing Examiner with subject-matter expertise also considers the evidence, researches the law, and recommends a decision to the Commissioners. The Commissioners and the public review the Hearing Examiner’s decision and ask questions of the Examiner in an open forum.
Constitutional Amendment No. 1 proposes to eliminate elections of PRC Commissioners and instead, allow the Governor to make appointments with consent of the Senate. To switch from having ratepayer consumers elect five Commissioners by district to having the Governor appoint three would eliminate our state’s geographic and economic representation on the PRC. Not every District would be represented.
Importantly, the Amendment would eliminate our Constitutional prohibition of candidates and Commissioners from receiving “anything of value” from a utility. The Amendment would replace this outright prohibition with a clause that would allow (but not require) impeachment for taking anything of value from a utility “by the commission, malfeasance, misfeasance or neglect of duty.” So the Amendment would allow Commissioners to receive utility money so long as it did not lead them to commit impeachable malfeasance or neglect of duty.
The oil and gas and utility industries donate heavily to campaigns for Governor and legislators, in order to ensure access and influence. The elimination of the prohibition on receiving anything of value from a utility would lead to more industry influence, not less. On the other hand, a Commission candidate who chooses the public funding option is insulated from the influence of the utilities that they will be regulating.
Governor appointments are not necessary to ensure expertise of the Commission. The existing qualifications for running for Commissioner and continuing education requirements can be expanded. Also, the number of experts available to the Commission needs to be increased. The National Regulatory Research Institute recommends at least one technical staff person per commissioner, like most regulatory agencies in the country have. Let’s fully fund this agency to give them the tools needed to adequately protect consumers.
In the past ten years, NM voters have made considerable strides in influencing the composition of the PRC to better reflect the interests of the people. Recently, the PRC decided to replace the energy from the closure of the San Juan coal plant with 100% renewables from independent power producers. This will reduce our electric bills, create jobs, and diversify our economy with clean energy.