This proposed constitutional amendment is the result of good bipartisan work by state lawmakers seeking to depoliticize the PRC and make it more professional.
The bipartisan amendment that passed the House in 2019 by a 59-8 vote and the Senate 36-5 would eliminate unnecessary elections to the quasi-judicial body – which really is a technocratic institution that should have no role in policymaking – and replace the five elected commissioners with three appointed commissioners.
The ballot measure would create a nominating committee to develop a list of candidates, and the governor would appoint three from the list, with the consent of the state Senate. Of the three commissioners, no more than two could be of the same political party. They would serve six-year terms and be limited to two terms. State lawmakers would be responsible for passing laws to decide the qualifications and education requirements for commissioners.
If approved by voters by a simple majority, this year will mark the last time PRC commissioners are elected, and few will notice the loss. While important to daily lives, they have been low-information, down-ballot races. And while the most recent commissioners and candidates have been more qualified, the PRC has had numerous scandals, running from felony convictions to violence from extramarital affairs to embezzlement to fuel a drug habit. We’ve called it the piñata of N.M. politics because it’s an easy target to hit, even blindfolded.
The amendment is supported by numerous disparate groups, including the N.M. Association of Commerce and Industry, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, Conservation Voters New Mexico and the Rio Grande Foundation.
They note the PRC has been dysfunctional, lacking competence, ethics and expertise. The PRC decides things like how much New Mexicans pay for electricity, natural gas service, landline phones, tow trucks, even ambulance services. For N.M. business to move forward, they say, it needs a consistent and professional regulatory environment.
Adoption of the amendment would put us with the vast majority of states that have appointed utility regulators.
Short version: Should the PRC be appointed rather than elected?
The Public Regulation Commission was born in the mid 90s through a constitutional amendment. Then, voters clearly believed the new body was a way of ridding New Mexico of the corruption and problems faced by the former State Corporation Commission. It didn’t work. The PRC has been similarly plagued over the years by unqualified commissioners and, yes, ongoing corruptions. Groups such as Think New Mexico have worked hard to address these issues, with legislation aimed at professionalizing the agency and instituting requirements for regulators. Some would argue these laws need more time on the books before reconfiguring the PRC into an appointed versus an elected body. We disagree.
This constitutional amendment would allow this important body—whose work impacts every New Mexican—to operate outside the realm of electoral politics. Moreover, it would provide an opportunity for renewed public trust in a beyond-beleaguered agency. It’s worth a try.
ReTake Democracy Now hosted a Zoom debate on the topic Oct. 5 between PRC candidate Joseph Maestas, who advocates against the amendment, and Noah Long, Western Region Director for Climate and Clean Energy with the National Resources Defense Council, in favor of it. Watch here.
This election, voters are being asked to give up power — there’s no other way to describe the effects of Constitutional Amendment 1.
The amendment, approved by a bipartisan Legislature, is a proposed transformation of the often-troubled Public Regulation Commission from an elected body to one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. A bipartisan nominating panel, much as happens with judicial appointments, would screen candidates and the governor must choose from their picks.
The idea is to take politics out of the PRC and insist on expertise. While qualifications for the PRC have been increased through previous reforms, this new, leaner PRC — it would decrease from five to three members — would be comprised of men and women rich in experience on matters of energy, utilities, regulatory law and technology.
So, why the change, why now and why is this good for New Mexico? The scope of the PRC is complex and wide-ranging. Commissioners have the power to set utility rates and will shoulder much of the responsibility of guiding the state through its transition to a renewable energy portfolio. To do their jobs well, commissioners must have a rare combination of skills: technological expertise, legal acumen and a keen knowledge of regulatory matters.
The current structure of the PRC is not delivering for New Mexicans. Special interests and big money, rather than professional qualifications, too often determine who serves on the commission. This is not a position conducive to on-the-job training. In the words of current commission Chairman Steve Fischmann and Commissioner Cynthia Hall, who both support the amendment, “Commissioners should be experts at the outset, not rookies.”