The Public Regulation Commission is a constitutionally mandated body of five Commissioners who regulate New Mexico utility companies, including Public Service Company of New Mexico. Voters in each of five PRC districts around the state elect a Commissioner to represent their district.
For every case before the PRC, an independent hearing examiner with subject matter expertise also considers the evidence, researches the law, and recommends a decision to the commissioners. The commissioners and the public are able to review the hearing examiner’s decision and ask questions of the Examiner in an open forum. Based on this accumulated information and public input from their respective districts, the commissioners cast their votes.
Constitutional Amendment 1 presented to the voters in this election proposes to eliminate elections of PRC commissioners and instead, allow the governor to make appointments to the PRC. The amendment would reduce the number of commissioners from five to three.
To switch from having ratepayer consumers elect commissioners by district to having the governor appoint them, would eliminate our state’s geographic and economic representation on the PRC. Not every district would be represented, and it is possible that the three commissioners could be appointed from a single district. It would mean that a possible majority of two commissioners, not accountable to the ratepayers, could control utility operations throughout the state. In practical terms, twp people could make a decision about hundreds of millions of dollars in transmission costs or replacement power that would impact rates for 20 or more years.
In the past 10 years, New Mexico voters have made considerable strides in influencing the composition of the PRC Commission to better reflect the interests of the people. Recently, the PRC just made one of the most important decisions that will impact ratepayer consumers for two decades: the PRC decided (against PNM) to replace the energy from the closure of the San Juan coal plant with 100 percent renewables from independent power producers. This will reduce our electric bills, create jobs, and diversify our economy with clean energy. Civic engagement and an informed electorate are exactly where we need to be headed. We cannot give up our power to elect the overseers of the utilities.
Gubernatorial appointments are not necessary to ensure the expertise of the commissioners. The existing qualifications for running for commissioner and continuing education requirements can be expanded. Also, the number of experts available to the commission needs to be increased. The National Regulatory Research Institute recommends at least one technical staff person per commissioner, like most regulatory agencies in the country have. Let’s fully fund this agency to give them the tools needed to adequately protect consumers.
Appointments are not necessary to prevent undue influence on commissioner, either. The Constitution presently prohibits any candidate or commissioner from receiving anything of value from a utility. In addition, campaigns for commissioners can be publicly funded. A candidate choosing this funding option is insulated from the influence of the utilities that they will be charged with regulating.
On the other hand, in every election for governor and New Mexico legislators, who would be key to the appointment process, the oil and gas and utility industries contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to their campaigns, ensuring influence in all things related to regulating their industries.
Commissioner accountability should be to us, the ratepayers, not to the vagaries of the party who holds the governorship. The constitutionally prescribed role of the PRC is to bring the people’s voices and representative democracy into the decision-making process. This will not happen with appointment.
Pia Gallegos is a member of the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.