By Lance Chilton
You get up out of bed before dawn and turn on the lights, stretch and take a shower. You toast the bread, turn on the gas burner and scramble the eggs in the pan for your breakfast. You get in the shuttle to the airport to take off for your vacation in Hawaii. But you have to come back sometime, and you have to pay the monthly bills for the electricity for those lights and that toaster, the water for that shower, the gas for that stove, and you had to pay for that shuttle ride to the airport. How could all of these things be so expensive? How could they be that cheap, given that each of the companies that provide these utilities and services is a monopoly and could theoretically charge as much as they wished?
The answer is that all of these monopoly industries are kept in check by the Public Regulation Commission (PRC), a little-known but very powerful and important part of New Mexico state government. Currently there are five districted elected commissioners making the final agency decisions after staff hearing examiners make a recommended decision as to whether a utility can change its rates or its operations .The PRC’s decisions can be appealed – directly to the New Mexico Supreme Court – but the Court grants great deference to the agency on fact-finding and little deference on matters of law. The commissioners must balance the interests of the utility companies with those of the consumers – their constituents – through a mix of fact-finding and law.
And so we get to quid pro quos, not the bad kind you may have heard about in Eastern Europe if you weren’t in a cave during the impeachment hearings that seem so long ago now, but one that will balance the needs of the Public Service Company of New Mexico against the needs of the environment and PNM’s customers, in the passage of last year’s Energy Transition Act (ETA). Quid pro quo – give this to get that – happened with the agreed-upon legislation to close the San Juan Generating Station (and, in the future, the Four Corners Station, the last two utility-owned coal plants in New Mexico), while providing financial incentives for PNM shareholders. In this case, it’s not international blackmail but instead a balancing of interests, with no one being left out while no one is completely happy with the result. As to the highly-contested question of law denied by the PRC last fall (3-2 vote), and then appealed to the Supreme Court, as to whether it should apply the ETA to the San Juan closure, the Court summarily said, “Yes, you shall.”
All this was discussed in much greater detail by Cynthia Hall, JD, a Democrat and current holder of the District One seat (most of Bernalillo County) on the PRC, as she spoke to a group of Democrats recently in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Ms. Hall, who supported PRC application of the ETA to the San Juan case, is one of two PRC commissioners who support the return of the PRC to an appointed rather than elected commission. This change will occur if a constitutional amendment contained in 2019 SJR 1 passes in November. If it does indeed pass, implementing legislation already passed in the 2020 legislative session in House Bill 386 and signed by the governor on March 3, will take effect in 2023. Commissioner selection will be from a nominating committee’s list to the Governor, with choices reflecting geographical diversity within the state, another balancing of interests in the interests of bill passage.
In the meanwhile, Ms. Hall is running for re-election this fall. She brings extensive experience as a staff attorney in the state’s Energy and Minerals Department and as a General Counsel’s Office attorney at the PRC itself, with first-hand knowledge of PRC procedures going back many years. She submitted written answers to my questions (see The Democratic Forum, https://bernalillodems.org/editorials-opinion-articles/) the most important one being “Absolutely” to the question, “Would you like to be one of the new appointed PRC commissioners?”