New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission has been in the news a lot in recent years, both for controversial rate increases and the fact that two commissioners were removed for felony convictions.
Last month, voters responded by approving changes for the agency in three constitutional amendments.
The Public Regulation Commission makes crucial regulation decisions. When utilities want to raise rates, PRC commissioners decide if you will pay more for water, gas, electricity and telephone service.
New Mexico is one of only 12 states in the country that elect utility commissioners in general elections, like state lawmakers. But Fred Nathan, Executive Director of Think New Mexico, says PRC Commissioners have a very different task after they take office. "Legislators are supposed to reflect the will of the people," Nathan says, "and there really shouldn’t be any more qualifications than they live with the constituents that they serve. A PRC commissioner is a lot more like a judge."
Until now, anyone could run for a seat on the PRC as long as they were 18 or older and have lived in New Mexico for six months….and do not have felony convictions.
Think New Mexico researched the PRC and decided that the bar was set too low. "They’re making very complex, technical decisions that impact New Mexicans every day and so we think it’s a position where you need to be qualified professionally or educationally or both," Nathan says.
Nathan points to current Commissioner Doug Howe as an example of someone who is clearly qualified for the job.
Howe was appointed last year to replace Jerome Block Jr. after he pled guilty to the misuse of campaign funds and charges related to the fraudulent use of a state credit card.
Commissioner Howe was able to draw on thirty years of utility industry experience while serving in the PRC, although he says the job of a commissioner requires a broad perspective. "It’s your responsibility to come up with what your conscience and your judgment and your knowledge is telling you is the best result for everybody involved," Howe says. "Not just the consumers, not just the people payin [but] the environmental community, the senior community and the utilities themselves."
Howe decided not to run for his PRC seat this fall, but he did support the implementation of new qualifications for future members. He says the definition of qualifications should be broad, but getting more qualified commissioners on the PRC would improve the efficiency of the commission. "One of the things that the PRC has been very strongly criticized about in the past, particularly from the investor community, is the length of time it takes to get a decision out of this body," Howe says. "I have to agree, it takes far too long for decisions to get out of here. 14 to 16 months to hear rate case. That’s too long. We should be able to do it in 9 months is my feeling."
New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment last month that requires new qualifications for PRC commissioners. Those will be drafted by state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.
At the same time, two other voter-approved amendments will be addressed. Rate hike requests for insurance will be moved into a new agency with an Insurance Superintendent….and authority over corporations will be moved into the Secretary of State’s office.
PRC Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar publicly opposed all three amendments. "I wanted the corporations division and insurance division to be under the umbrella of the PRC because when you run for public office, you say that I want to work with the whole organization and you want to improve it, that is the mission that I took," Becenti-Aguilar says.
However, Becenti-Aguilar says she respects the will of the voters but she thinks the current PRC commissioners have made progress in improving the image and operation of the PRC.
Once the session begins next month, the legislature must come up with a mix of both education and experience to raise the standards for PRC commissioners, say some lawmakers and observers alike, while still making sure that potential leaders in all 5 districts around the state are able to run for the PRC.