- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - It will be up to New Mexico voters to decide the future of a powerful commission in charge of regulating utilities and other businesses.

A constitutional amendment on the ballot proposes changing the Public Regulation Commission from elected to governor-appointed members.

Supporters say the change would ensure that commissioners are experienced regulators rather than politicians. As of now, they say there’s unbridled influence from environmental and industry lobbyists working to sway commissioners’ votes.

Opponents call it a power grab by the governor that would eliminate voters’ ability to elect their own representatives.

Commission Chairman Steve Fischmann is among those with concerns. He said the ballot language is misleading because it doesn’t tell voters that current law calls for commissioners to be elected. The measure states new appointees would be selected by the governor from a list of qualified nominees, asking voters to change the law without giving clarity on the process as it stands now.

He also noted that the governor and state lawmakers run political action committees that often take large contributions from utilities that could influence the selection of appointees.

“It has morphed from a good government initiative into a political power play,” he said in a statement late last week. “The governor and legislative leaders have no business driving the selection of PRC commissioners until they insulate themselves permanently and completely from utility money.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the elected commission still sees money coming in from all sides.

“It’s turned the commission into a matter of who has the most leverage and power to win elections, rather than who can do the best job as a commissioner,” he told the Albuquerque Journal.

The push to reorganize the commission gained steam as the state began implementing a 2019 landmark energy law that involves the closure of a major coal-fired power plant and efforts to address the economic pains, and renewable energy mandates for investor-owned utilities to be carbon-free by 2045.

Decisions related to the Energy Transition Act have resulted in legal challenges involving the commission, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other Democratic lawmakers.

The Public Regulation Commission was created after voters in 1996 abolished two other regulatory entities - the three-member elected State Corporations Commission and three-member appointed Public Utilities Commission.

Years of ethics-related criticism of former commissions inspired the change aimed at making regulators more directly accountable to the public.

Proponents of this year’s ballot initiative say the commission history has proved a failure.

Wirth and Republican Sens. William Payne of Albuquerque and Steven Neville of Aztec sponsored the resolution that passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support to land on the ballot.

The state Republican Party opposes the initiative, which it says would consolidate the governor’s control over the commission, strip commissioners of their independent ability to protect consumers and open the door to more influence from special interests.

Payne argued the legislation includes rigorous checks and balances that block governors from stacking the commission.

A bipartisan legislative committee would vet prospective commissioners’ professional qualifications to list candidates the governor can nominate. The governor’s nominees would be subject to confirmation by the Senate. No more than two of the three commissioners could be from the same party.

Think New Mexico, a public policy think tank, says special-interest money has already seeped into the voting process.

The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers, an organization set up by environmentalists, recently spent $264,000 on mailers that suggest residents consider whether they prefer “qualified professionals or politicians?” The committee disclosed the spending in September but didn’t report who its donors are, prompting Think New Mexico Executive Director Fred Nathan to question the influence of “dark money.”

“The public has a right to know who is spending so much money to influence this election,” he told the Journal.

Committee board member Noah Long, who oversees the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western climate and clean energy program, said the group will disclose its donors in post-election reporting.

In 2011, Think New Mexico promoted changes that set minimal professional qualifications for PRC commissioners. Voters approved the measures in 2012.

“The bottom line is that elected commissioners tend to be more responsive to the needs of consumers and tend to keep rates a bit lower, while appointed commissions tend to be somewhat more highly qualified,” Nathan said. “There are trade-offs.”

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