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Commissioners protest proposed PRC changes

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A battle is brewing over a proposal to overhaul the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, as three PRC members have cautioned legislators that a Democratic-backed bill would be an unconstitutional intrusion.

In a letter sent this week, the three commissioners said the measure would infringe on the PRC’s authority to regulate public utilities, including transportation, water and electric companies.

“We do not believe (the bill), no matter how well-intentioned, serves the public interest if the result would undermine the commission’s independent performance of its duties as required by the New Mexico Constitution and contribute to further delay in providing essential services to its customers,” the letter said.

It was signed by Republican Commissioner Jefferson Byrd of Tucumcari and Democratic Commissioners Valerie Espinoza of Santa Fe and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar of Albuquerque, who is the PRC’s chairwoman.

The PRC has clashed with top-ranking Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in recent months over the five-member regulatory body’s handling of a landmark energy law passed by lawmakers last year.

The discord led to a state Supreme Court ruling last month that the PRC must apply the Energy Transition Act, which Lujan Grisham signed into law last year, in considering a plan to close a coal-fired power plant in San Juan County.

It also prompted the filing of House Bill 11, co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe, which calls for the governor to appoint two top executives who would oversee the PRC’s staff.

The measure has already cleared one House committee and is scheduled to be debated Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

Trujillo has described the measure as a “good government” bill that could decrease staff turnover by sheltering employees from political dynamics, such as the outcomes of commission races.

However, the three PRC members argued in their letter that underfunding of the PRC and recent changes to the state’s pension fund are more to blame for high staff turnover rates.

The letter was not signed by the PRC’s two other commissioners – Cynthia Hall of Albuquerque and Stephen Fischmann of Las Cruces.

Currently, the five members of the PRC are elected by voters and represent districts around New Mexico.

However, that too could change under a proposed constitutional amendment that will go before statewide voters in November. If ratified, the measure, approved by the Legislature last year, would turn the PRC into an appointed body, with nominees screened for professional qualifications.

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