The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 8-5 along party lines to approve a bill that would significantly alter the structure of the state’s Public Regulation Commission.
House Bill 11, introduced by state Reps. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, and Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, would move many of the divisions currently under the commission’s authority to a department within the governor’s administration.
It also would give the governor the right to appoint the PRC’s chief of staff for a term of six years, following an initial term of three years. Currently, the five members of the commission make that hiring decision.
The PRC is one of the most influential — and controversial — players in state government.
It is charged with regulating utilities, telecommunications, motor carriers and the New Mexico Fire Marshal’s Office. Through many years, the commission has been the subject of harsh criticism on a variety of issues and most recently came under fire from the Governor’s Office when it balked at applying the 2019 Energy Transition Act to the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s plans to close and recover investments from the San Juan Generating Station.
The state Supreme Court last month ruled the new law should apply to the closure.
Among other measures, the sponsors said the bill will help fill staff vacancy rates, allow the department to hire expert policy advisers, depoliticize the chief of staff role and more clearly separate the roles played by the agency’s regulatory arm from its Consumer Advocacy Division.
But Small told the committee that a lack of advisory experts and staff vacancies and the lack of separation of departmental responsibilities within the PRC stymie its potential to serve the public.
“Through no fault of any employee and through no fault of any commissioner, the structure of our Public Regulation Commission inhibits their ability to do these needed roles,” Small said.
Lawmakers from both parties questioned many portions of the plan and wondered why the representatives were pushing for these changes some nine months before the general election, in which voters will decide whether to maintain the commission as an elected body or choose to downsize it to three members appointed by the governor.
They also questioned whether placing the PRC’s chief of staff under the governor would really depoliticize the role.
Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, called the legislation a “premature … blatant power grab.”
Democrats on the committee also expressed doubts about whether the chief of staff change would make any difference.
“I’m not sure being appointed by the governor as opposed to being appointed by the PRC is any less political,” said Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe and chairman of the committee.
The legislative action, if enacted into law, would shift the consumer relations, transportation, utility and legal divisions from the PRC to the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department.
Those in attendance at Thursday’s hearing at the Roundhouse who spoke in favor of the bill — including PRC members Cynthia Hall and Stephen Fischmann — said the legislation would relieve the PRC of dealing with human resources issues or consumer complaints, which they often do, and make it a stronger organization.
Those opposed — including PRC members Valerie Espinoza and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar — said it would cripple the agency’s ability to act independently of the governor and leave consumers without an advocacy group to protect them.
“You’re taking away the public’s Public Regulation Commission,” Espinoza said. “You’re stripping away the entire organization … with this bill.”
The commission’s acting chief of staff, Jason Montoya, said the agency’s budget is about $15.1 million. He said there are more than 30 vacancies in the organization — a rate of about 19 percent.
He and lawmakers on the committee said House Bill 2, which the House of Representatives approved Wednesday, includes a roughly 13 percent increase in the PRC’s budget for the coming fiscal year.
HB 11 next goes to the House Judiciary Committee.