Regardless of what the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission will look like in 15 months, the agency needs more technical expertise now, some commissioners say.
They argue the complexities and importance of the job prohibit scrimping on experts who can help them make good decisions on electric service and other responsibilities.
Commissioner Joseph Maestas of Santa Fe said the shortage of technical staffers “really ties the hands of the agency” and compromises the commission’s ability to serve the public.
Maestas said he expects the commission to ask the Legislature for supplemental money this fall and additional money for fiscal year 2022. The commission doesn’t know yet how many positions are needed and exactly what kinds of jobs will be sought, he added. That will be determined by the staff.
Voters decided last year to change the commission in 2023 from a five-person elected board to a three-member appointed board.
The decision came after years of squabbling and controversy had beset the commission, with some past members getting in legal trouble. But any group of commissioners would need more staffers such as economists and engineers to sort through the nuances of the utility issues they confront, Maestas and others say.
Staffing came up in the commission’s meeting Wednesday, when Chairman Stephen Fischmann of Las Cruces criticized Attorney General Hector Balderas for what he said was a failure to aggressively represent residential and small-business customers of electric utilities.
Fischmann said the state needs to create a consumer advocate position — if not in the Public Regulation Commission, then somewhere in state government.
Still, Maestas said the most pressing need is acquiring the technical staffers to guide commissioners through tough cases involving mergers, renewable energy, rates for customers, energy supplies, technological advances and other things.
“Our true needs are technical in nature,” he said.
Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguila of northwestern New Mexico said Friday she doesn’t agree. With the current commission on its way out, it doesn’t make sense to her to beef up the staff. She said she doesn’t know “where my colleagues are coming from” on the issue and that “the Legislature is not going to pump any more money into the agency.”
But Commissioner Cynthia Hall of Albuquerque said that without a staff of technical advisers, commissioners rely heavily on the testimony of intervenors, often organizations with their own interests in regulatory cases.
Commission chief of staff Wayne Propst recently said the agency has vacancies in 22 of 119 positions. He said it’s especially hard to hire engineers and economists at the wages the agency offers because the private sector pays more.
“I am hopeful that working with the Legislature and the executive [branch], we will be able to address the agency’s budget issues in the upcoming session, which will not only help the current commission complete its work but also ensure that the new commission gets off on the right footing,” Propst said in an email.
Possible positions include engineers, economists, policy experts and financial analysts, commissioners said Wednesday. Recent efforts to hire an economist didn’t succeed, they added.
Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest electric utility, agreed the commission needs more technical staffers.
“PNM fully supports a well-funded technical advisory staff for commissioners,” PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval wrote in an email Friday. He said many other states’ regulatory commissions have access to numerous technical experts.
A 2017 report by the National Regulatory Research Institute pointed to the need for more technical staff, such as an electrical engineer. Hiring technical advisers should be “a top priority,” the report said. “Benefits may include better-informed commissioners, dockets completed in less time, and overall higher-quality decisions.”
The report also said the commission’s reputation for controversy was a hindrance to hiring highly skilled workers.
Fischmann said Thursday that since the addition of Maestas last year, the commission functions well. “I think maybe the commission is as strong as it’s ever been and as professional as it’s ever been,” he added.
Maestas, who is running for state auditor, said there was “a glaring need” for more technical staffers when the report was written in 2017. “And it still exists.”
He said he hopes the current commissioners can leave the agency in better shape than it was in when they arrived.