The continuing saga of the Public Regulation Commission

Legislators are tinkering with the Public Regulation Commission yet again this year. If legislation is successful, we voters will be looking at another amendment to the state constitution in the 2020 general election, fiddling with the structure of this agency that never seems to be quite right. We’ve had several such amendments since the PRC was created.

The PRC has been a perennial problem ever since it replaced an even worse problem, the former State Corporation Commission, and what used to be called the Public Utilities Commission.

The PRC was created by state constitutional amendment about 20 years ago, primarily to be the regulator of electric and other utilities. It also inherited a miscellany of other divisions and responsibilities from the Corporation Commission. Some of those divisions, such as regulation of insurance, have been spun off into separate agencies, largely because we didn’t like the political pressure on those divisions when they were within the PRC.

This year there’s a bill to liberate the state fire marshal’s office. House Bill 269, sponsored by Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, and others, makes it a separate agency, administratively attached to (which does not mean controlled by) the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance.

The bigger issue is how PRC commissioners are chosen. Currently, the five commissioners are elected by district. The work of the PRC requires technical expertise in the very complex area of utility regulation, and the law requires relevant professional experience, but some of the elected commissioners have been more politician than expert.

There are two competing bills: Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Senators Peter Wirth, D–Santa Fe, and William Payne, R–Albuquerque, and Senate Joint Resolution 4, Sponsored by Stephen Neville, R–Aztec. If either one passes both houses, it will go before the voters next year.

SJR 4 proposes using the old-fashioned method of having all commissioners appointed by the governor, selected at large (from anywhere in the state) with confirmation by the Senate and with professional qualifications to be determined later by legislation. Under this bill, commission positions are earmarked: one attorney, one engineer, one accountant, one member from a regulated industry and one public member.

SJR 1 is a hybrid of appointment and election. It probably has a better chance of passage because its sponsors are bipartisan and one of them, Wirth, is the Senate majority leader. It proposes that three commissioners be elected, one from each of New Mexico’s three congressional districts, and two be chosen by the governor. The appointed members may not be from the same political party. Qualifications will be established by the legislature. It’s an interesting approach mixing the virtues and vulnerabilities of both methods.

Speaking of hybrid commissions, Wirth is also proposing, in Senate Bill 5, to reorganize the Interstate Stream Commission, which has a major role in regulating the state’s waters. The proposed reorganization is intended to reduce partisanship and assure a broad representation of water-related interest groups. It includes earmarked slots for representatives of community acequia systems, irrigation and conservancy districts, Indian tribes, academic experts and others, some appointed by the governor and others by the legislative leadership.

This commission is established in law, not in the state constitution, so if the legislation is passed and signed the voters won’t need to amend the constitution for it.

How commissioners are selected is always a trade-off between appointment and election. With appointment, a governor can select the top experts, but there is no guarantee that a governor will do that, and a powerful commission is a political plum that a governor could use for reasons other than expertise. Elected officials are more likely to be politicians themselves, but have the virtue of being independent. It appears that legislators are making a genuine effort to find a balance that will serve the public.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

 

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