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'We need professionals rather than politicians.' Voters approve change to an appointed PRC

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — Starting in January 2023, the body tasked with regulating utility matters in New Mexico will no longer be an elected commission. Instead, three governor-appointed commissioners will make decisions rather than five elected commissioners.

This comes after New Mexicans voted in favor of a constitutional amendment changing the structure of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. Unofficial results show that voters favored an appointed PRC, with 442,149 voters favoring the change while 353,601 voters opposed it.

“The most important thing about all of this is having a professional commission and not a political one” said Camilla Feibelman, chapter director for the Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter. Her organization was one of the groups to endorse the constitutional amendment. "You don't want your health being decided by politicians. You don't want complex utility structures being decided by politicians. And so my main concern is having a professional, equipped body to do that work."

She said having a commission consisting of qualified professionals will help as the state transitions from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Others are reading:New Mexico warns of a 'miserable' November and tighter measures as COVID-19 spreads

When the Energy Transition Act became law, the PRC initially challenged whether it applied to Public Service Company of New Mexico’s application to end its operations at the San Juan Generating Station.

Both opponents and proponents of the constitutional amendment highlight the ensuing court battles that ultimately ended with the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that the Energy Transition Act applied to the case and had to be implemented.

The San Juan Generating Station is pictured, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, from the area of the sealed evaporation ponds on the north side of the plant in Waterflow.

"Here's New Mexico leading on the transition to renewables and a just economic transition, but we had to spend a lot of time trying to convince the commission to follow the law and I think voters understood we need professionals rather than politicians on the Public Regulation Commission to effectively shepherd in the transformation," Feibelman said.

But opponents argue that the constitutional amendment is a power grab that will lead to higher electric rates and more control of the PRC, which has traditionally been an independent body, by both the governor and the utilities.

While both sides referenced the Energy Transition Act, it was not the deciding factor in placing the constitutional amendment on the ballot. The legislation leading to the constitutional amendment passed during the same legislative session as the Energy Transition Act.

Opponents say voters were not aware of the consequences 

Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, a Democrat who represents northwest New Mexico, saw the passage of the constitutional amendment as stripping away the voice of the people and said voters were not necessarily aware of what they were voting for when they passed it. 

Becenti-Aguilar said the language on the ballot did not make it clear that an appointed body would get rid of the people's vote.

Theresa Becenti-Aguilar

The ballot measure stated: "proposing to amend the constitution of New Mexico to provide that the Public Regulation Commission consist of three members appointed by the governor from a list of professionally qualified nominees submitted to the governor by a nominating committee and that the commission is required to regulate public utilities and may be required to regulate other public service companies." 

"I believe in democracy and the people's voice has been taken away," she said. "The people's power to vote has been taken away...so all and all if constitutional amendment one is officially passed then this all fades away into the sunset. I believe the people will be hurt tremendously as far as having a voice."

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She said that voice is important as the PRC regulates large utility companies and makes decisions that can impact workers such as coal miners in San Juan County. She highlighted both the recent PRC decisions regarding the San Juan Generating Station as well as a future case about transferring PNM's 13% ownership of the Four Corners Power Plant to Navajo Transitional Energy Company.

And Becenti-Aguilar was not alone in the feeling that the voters were unaware of what they were approving.

“Unfortunately, what was on the ballot was deceptive and people really had no idea what they were voting for or the consequence of their decision,” said Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the advocacy group New Energy Economy, in a statement. Her group frequently intervenes in PRC cases. “If going forward the monopoly utilities are able to trade campaign contributions for industry de-regulation by political hacks then captive customers will be even more vulnerable to greedy executives and foul play.”

At left, New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi walks toward a sealed pond, on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, while touring San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow.

Like Nanasi, Becenti-Aguilar said the constitutional amendment could lead to increased utility interference into the regulatory process and will give the governor ultimate control.

Those feelings were echoed by Larry Behrens, the western states director for the pro-fossil fuels group Power the Future.

Others are reading:Ryan Lane, a newly-elected state representative, says economic development is needed“Electric bills are going to go up because of the Energy Transition Act and now the Governor will have her own PRC to simply rubber-stamp those increases and pass them on to New Mexicans,” he said in a statement. “The reason radical environmentalists spent so much out-of-state money in support of this measure is because they can't accept that an independent PRC might scrutinize how their green agenda is going to harm working families.” 

Elected commissioners will serve until 2023

The constitutional amendment will not impact the currently serving commissioners, who will serve out the remainder of their terms and leave office in 2023. The two newly-elected commissioners, incumbent Cynthia Hall and newcomer Joseph Maestas, both Democrats, will serve two year terms ending in 2023.

At that point, a nominating committee will provide the governor with a list of qualified nominees. The governor will appoint one for a two-year term, another for a four-year term and the final commissioner will be appointed for a six-year term. After those terms are completed, all of the commissioners will serve six-year terms and no commissioner can serve more than two consecutive terms.

The governor cannot appoint more than two members that have the same political affiliation and the nominees must be approved by the state Senate.

How did each county vote

Voters in Rio Arriba, Taos, McKinley, Sandoval, Santa Fe, Mora, San Miguel, Cibola, Bernalillo, Valencia, Guadalupe, Socorro, Doña Ana, Luna and Grant counties approved the measure while voters in San Juan, Los Alamos, Union, Harding, Quay, Torrance, Catron, De Baca, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Curry, Chaves, Otero, Eddy, Lea, Sierra and Hidalgo counties opposed it. The vote was split in Colfax County with 2,632 ballots opposing the measure and 2,599 approving it.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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