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Tuesday, October 21, 2008
N.M. Public Regulation Commission District 1: Candidate Questions Policies
By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
Both candidates for the Public Regulation Commission District 1 seat say the commission's job is to balance competing economic interests, but they have different views on what constitutes a legitimate economic interest.
Incumbent Jason Marks, a Democrat, lists several issues facing the commission that he says will require decisions that protect not only consumers and companies but the long-term future of New Mexico's economy and environment.
Republican challenger E. Tim Cummins says PRC policies slow down decisionmaking and end up costing businesses and, ultimately, consumers time and money.
The five-member Public Regulation Commission is responsible for regulating many important sectors of the economy, among them electric and gas utilities, telecommunications companies, insurance companies and transportation companies. District 1 covers central Bernalillo County, including much of the city of Albuquerque, and a portion of Sandia Pueblo.
Cummins objects to the idea that the PRC should be a consumer watchdog, which, he said, is the State Attorney General's job, or an economic development engine, which, he said, is the state Legislature's job.
"When these guys hold themselves out as consumer watchdogs and protectors of the public, they're not doing justice to the state and consumers as a whole," Cummins said. He said the "instability" of the PRC's regulation is one reason PNM's bond rating is so bad, which raises the company's costs and affects consumers' rates.
"They don't understand the balance between regulating and giving incentives," Cummins said. "You can't regulate how fast technology comes along. You can provide incentives to help it come along faster."
Cummins said the PRC is too involved with its own staff, so staff recommendations and findings about cases can be biased by commissioners' thinking before the cases make it to a hearing. The staff should be just one more party in a case, along with the regulated companies and intervenors, Cummins said.
That lack of objectivity means that some parties to PRC cases "are not getting a fair hearing. I don't think that's in the public's interest," Cummins said.
The commission takes too long to handle even trivial issues because too many cases require formal hearings, Cummins said. The PRC needs to let its staff independently evaluate issues and allow quick votes when issues are small and not controversial. Cummins said he has heard from some regulated companies claiming they had spend thousands on lawyers and several months "to ask for something that should be pretty mundane."
Marks says PRC decisions have wide-ranging consequences, far beyond the immediate issues in a case. For example, the state's economy depends on reliable telecommunications at the same time technology is changing traditional telecom providers' businesses. The PRC has to keep companies like Qwest investing in New Mexico infrastructure, even as cell phones and Internet-based communication replace traditional service, he said, adding, "Regulation needs to evolve as that market evolves."
Energy regulation needs to encourage conservation and a move away from fossil fuels, Marks said.
"With climate change, all the economic and environmental things are on the same side of the ledger," he said. "If we don't mitigate what we're doing in emitting greenhouse gases, we're going to decimate the agriculture industry in New Mexico, outdoor recreation, skiing is gone, hunting and fishing, things like that."
Over the long run, people will move from coastal areas to places like New Mexico, putting "extra pressure on our services and infrastructure," which PRC regulation affects, Marks said.
Marks said the PRC needs to move title insurance reform along, simplify consumers' telephone bills and move its year-old investigation into utility executives' compensation forward. Marks said the evidence is that executives in investor-owned utilities regulated by the PRC make much more than executives at similar publicly owned utilities.
"We need to see if it's possible and desirable to put caps on reasonable compensation that can be passed on to ratepayers in the cost of service," he said.