PRC should represent all New Mexicans
With many high-profile issues under consideration during this legislative session, the public might not have noticed that there is a constitutional amendment quietly moving through the process that would make our state’s most powerful regulatory agency less representative, less responsive to the public and more susceptible to the influence of powerful special interests.
We represent opposite parties and different corners of New Mexico, but we share common concerns about the Senate Rules Committee substitute for Senate Joint Resolutions 1 and 4, which would change the Public Regulation Commission from a five-member elected commission to a three-member commission with members appointed by the governor.
When the PRC was created in 1996, geographic representation was a key consideration. The PRC replaced the State Corporation Commission, a three-member body elected in statewide elections, and the Public Utility Commission, a three-member body appointed by the governor. Both commissions were dominated by lawyers from the urban centers of the state, primarily Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
As the constitutional amendment to create the PRC was working its way through the legislative process, the Legislature deliberately added a provision that the five PRC commissioners would be elected from five separate geographic districts, rather than statewide.
This has meant that our rural communities in northwestern and Eastern New Mexico have a seat at the table and a voice in decisions that profoundly affect rural New Mexican. This is especially important when it comes to issues like rural electric co-ops and water systems.
SJR 1 takes a big step backward by proposing to turn the PRC into a three-member body with all members appointed by the governor. There is no requirement for any sort of geographic representation, which makes it extremely likely that the commission would be dominated by members from the urban population centers rather than rural New Mexico. It is also likely that the ethnic and racial diversity of the PRC would be reduced along with the geographic diversity.
Even more concerning to us is the reason why this legislation is being pushed at this time.
During the last PRC election, the PRC-regulated utility Public Service Company of New Mexico spent roughly $440,000 to try to elect two commissioner candidates that it thought would be friendly to its interests. (Direct contributions to PRC candidates are prohibited by law, but the money was filtered through a political action committee, New Mexicans for Progress.) In both of those elections, the public rejected PNM’s chosen candidates.
Interestingly, PNM was part of the group that met in secret and developed SJR 1, along with other special interests like the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and a lobbyist who represents companies regulated by the PRC. Not at the table was anyone representing tribes or rural communities in Eastern New Mexico. Perhaps the special interest groups have decided that it may be easier for them to influence an appointment process rather than an election where the public has the final say.
We believe that it is inappropriate for regulated entities to choose their regulators. We note that New Mexico’s appointed Public Utility Commission was called “a lapdog of our state’s power companies” in a Jan. 6, 1994, Santa Fe New Mexican editorial. On Jan. 30, 1995, another editorial in the same paper explained that: “Because that commission is governor-appointed rather than elected, as in other states, its membership is subject to the political spoils system rather than merits as judged by voters.”
In recent years, the PRC has been improved in a number of ways. The addition of qualifications and continuing education for commissioners has provided a balance between increasing the professionalism of commissioners and retaining accountability to the voters of the state.
It would be a serious mistake to take a step backward and return to a system where the commissioners are appointed by the governor, where there can be influence from campaign donations by regulated industry, and where rural New Mexico will be ignored. We hope that legislators will reject SJR 1 and maintain a PRC that represents all of New Mexico.
Theresa Becenti-Aguilar is the chairwoman of the PRC, representing District 4. Jefferson L. Byrd is a PRC commissioner representing District 2.