Why PRC commissioners should be appointed

Cynthia Hall and Steve Fischmann
Your turn
The boundaries of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

The debate over whether commissioners on the Public Regulation Commission should be elected or appointed centers on three areas of contention: Commissioners’ competency, integrity and place of residence. These concerns arise in persistent disputes over qualifications, corruption and whether rural issues are being adequately addressed in PRC decisions. We need changes to address all three issues.

First, the need for stronger professional qualifications for PRC commissioners has increased over time, due to the increasing complexity of the regulated monopoly utility industries and their markets. Since the 1970s, major utility industry changes have occurred in New Mexico, as elsewhere. Technological developments have driven the re-structuring of the telecom industry nationwide and the electric utility industry in nearly a third of states from a monopoly market to open retail competition. Both industries have seen fundamental changes in all aspects of the supply chain, from product generation through transmission and distribution, and in consumption.

These ongoing changes impose daunting intellectual challenges even for experienced, highly educated commissioners. The public and the utility companies that serve them deserve to have commissioners with meaningful expertise when they begin working as commissioners. That means graduate level education plus significant industry or regulatory experience. Commissioners should be experts at the outset, not rookies.

Second, the public and regulated industries also deserve commissioners who don’t take advantage of the position for corrupt purposes. The switch to elected commissioners from appointed ones with the creation of the PRC in 1999 occurred because of concerns of appointments not being based on merit and that commissioners were vulnerable to persons paying for influence. Experience since then has shown that these concerns have not been remedied by requiring commissioners to run for office. In fact, commissioners are more vulnerable now, as there are new means of political influence that didn’t exist in the late 1990s, such as PACs and super PACs.

A PRC commissioner’s job is quasi-judicial, rooted in law and its complexities. A selection process similar to that used for judges would be a bulwark against corruption, assuming the vetting process is rigorous. Certain standards for selection could be borrowed from the judicial selection process, including high-level professional expertise, intellectual stamina and a judicial temperament. Commissioners’ independence from undue gubernatorial influence could be achieved by limiting the governor’s removal authority to acts of malfeasance, nonfeasance or neglect of duty, with a trial by the Senate.

Third, commissioners should serve at large and not by districts, which forces each commissioner to wear a representative hat as well as a judicial one. With constituencies by districts come the expectation that commissioners will place their district’s interests above the state’s, contrary to their duty to serve the public interest. In utility regulation, ratepayers everywhere in New Mexico want the lowest cost and best quality utility service. The slower pace of delivery of services to rural areas is more dependent on commissioners’ competency and sense of duty than where they live.

The main reason for commissioners to serve at large is based on their competency imperative. We need commissioners whose decisions we can rely on to put the interest of all New Mexicans first, taking into account and addressing regional and local implications, but with a focused eye on the big picture of benefits and detriments for New Mexico as a whole. Only with this integrative approach in decision making, made possible by allowing commissioners to wear only one hat rather than two, can the PRC emerge as a constructive regulatory force for the future of New Mexico’s consumers and utilities.

PRC Commissioner Cynthia Hall represents District 1 and PRC Commissioner Steve Fischmann represents District 5.