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Regulators being evicted from state offices

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, surrounded by state lawmakers, Cabinet officials and others, signs the Energy Transition Act during a ceremony earlier this year. (Dan Mckay/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — A powerful commission in charge of regulating utilities and other New Mexico businesses is being evicted from its state offices by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Officials with the Public Regulation Commission say the timing is suspicious, given recent legal battles between the governor and commissioners over implementation of the state’s new energy transition law, which clears the way for the closure of a major coal-fired power plant and adoption of more ambitious renewable energy goals.

The notice requiring the commission to vacate the building by the end of June came with no explanation and afforded the the agency less than four months to find new offices.

The commission’s attorney argued in a March 13 response to state officials that the current location across the street from the state Capitol includes specially designed hearing rooms and public meeting spaces that can accommodate the crowds that usually turn out for rate-setting decisions and other cases.

“At this time, the termination of the PRC lease is directly contrary to the public interest,” attorney Michael Smith wrote to the state’s facilities management division.

Aside from the upheaval of government operations, the closure of many businesses and the halting of other activities because of the coronavirus public health emergency, the commission is in the middle of a landmark case with major implications for providing electricity to residents and businesses in coming decades.

Commission staff has pointed to what would likely by a six-figure price tag to move the agency, special requirements for public meeting spaces and the prospect of adding close to $1 million in recurring rent costs to the bottom line if space must be found elsewhere in Santa Fe. The commission currently doesn’t pay rent.

Commissioners have said the fight over office space is the latest in what they described as sustained assaults on the agency. They pointed to an unsuccessful effort during the recent legislative session by the governor and others to overhaul the commission.

“Instead of allowing the agency to focus on their responsibilities and caring for their health, the PRC staff will now be spending taxpayer time packing offices and searching for a home,” the commission said in a statement. “It is a troubling fact that this is being done now and in this manner.”

State officials said Wednesday they need to make room for New Mexico’s new early childhood agency and the commission’s headquarters, which already house state child welfare offices, are the best place.

General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz said the new agency will come online in July and the site will help centralize operations. He said his agency is willing to work with the commission to identify its needs and issue a request for proposals for a new space. He acknowledged the Santa Fe market typically is on the high end.

Public Regulation Commission Chief of Staff Jason Montoya said had the commission been consulted early on, the turmoil that has resulted over the real estate flap could have been avoided.

The commission is adamant that under the existing tenant agreement, the state has no legal authority to terminate the lease ahead of schedule.