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Effort to revamp utility regulation stalls in Senate

February 19, 2020 GMT

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A proposal that would reshape the administrative structure of a powerful regulatory panel that oversees New Mexico utilities and other businesses was derailed in the Senate on Tuesday after Democrats and Republicans raised concerns about maintaining the separation of powers between the independently elected regulators and the governor.

The Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee moved to table the measure after a couple hours of debate, limiting any chance it could be revived before lawmakers adjourn Thursday.

Supporters were pushing to get the bill through the committee and to the full Senate after it narrowly passed the House by only two votes late Sunday.

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The legislation was backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and key Democrats who have voiced frustration in recent months with the Public Regulation Commission’s handling of a new renewable energy law that dictates how the closure of a major coal-fired power plant will be financed and how the economic pains of job losses and evaporating revenue will affect communities in northwestern New Mexico.

The dispute ended up before the New Mexico Supreme Court, which recently ruled that the law would have to be applied to the case of the San Juan Generating Station.

Republican Sen. William Sharer of Farmington said that while the efficiency of the commission could stand to be improved, the legislation to restructure the agency seemed to be punishment for the commission not “bowing to the whims of the powers on high.” He also suggested it would serve to disrupt the commission as it prepares to take on a significant rate case that will affect the more than 500,000 electric customers of Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

Under the proposal, administration of the Public Regulation Commission would be moved to another state agency and commissioners would have to select their chief of staff from a list of candidates provided by the governor.

Critics said the measure wouldn’t help insulate commission staff from political considerations or reduce turnover as promised. They describe it as a power grab since it would grant the governor more authority over the commission.

Sharer called it a “separations of power nightmare,” saying the Legislature wouldn’t think of providing lists of candidates from which the governor or the courts must hire.

“I would be stunned if somebody said the president of the United States gets to pick the chief of staff for the speaker of the House. Holy cow. Could you image? The people in this room, their hair would catch on fire. Even if there was just a tweet saying he wanted to do that, the whole place would melt down,” Sharer said.

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Democrats who supported the measure talked about the inefficiencies of the commission and the confusion that has come from decision-making since the agency’s advocacy and regulatory roles are often intertwined. They also pointed to turnover among key leadership positions, saying employees were plagued by the uncertainty that results every time a new commissioner is elected.

New Mexico is one of fewer than a dozen states with an elected regulatory panel like the PRC. Environmental and business groups that supported the bill argued the changes would bring New Mexico in line with Utah and Colorado, for example, and provide more regulatory certainty for businesses.

Other changes could also be in store for the five-member commission as voters will decide a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would turn the PRC into an appointed body.

Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez, chair of the Senate committee, said the Legislature can always come back next year to consider what organizational changes might be needed depending on the fate of the constitutional amendment. Citing what he called deep concerns about the agency and the important role it plays in protecting the interests of ratepayers, he said the will of the people should help inform how lawmakers proceed.