Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is scrambling to find a new home for its 126 active employees after a state order to vacate its longtime home near the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.
The General Services Department notified the PRC in March that it had to leave the PERA Building – where it’s been housed for more than two decades – by June 30. It later extended that to Sept. 30, but with the eviction date now rapidly approaching, the commission is struggling to pack up its offices and find alternative accommodations during the pandemic.
The PRC’s fiscal year 2021 budget includes no money to lease a new office, because it never paid rent at the state-owned PERA Building – nor does it include money for moving expenses, temporary housing or storage space for equipment, furniture or files, said PRC chief of staff Jason Montoya.
“The GSD issued us an eviction letter with no appropriations provided and nothing in the current operating budget to lease an office,” Montoya told the Journal. “We’ve been told that no other state space will be made available to the PRC in the near future.”
The GSD says it needs the PRC’s current space to house the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
But with the PRC facing imminent homelessness and no state assistance to even temporarily resolve the situation, House Republican leaders say Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham may be punishing the PRC for decisions that conflict with state policies.
House Republican Leader James Townsend, Republican Whip Rod Montoya, and Republican Caucus Chair Candy Spence Ezzell said in an Aug. 27 letter to the governor that they’re “dismayed” at what seems to be a “vindictive reaction” to the PRC.
“We are writing to express our frustration with your administration’s unwillingness to locate appropriate space for the (PRC),” they said. “The failure to provide this constitutionally established entity with a proper location to conduct its statutory responsibilities is, frankly, incomprehensible.”
Lujan Grisham’s administration and Democratic legislators have clashed frequently with commission members since last year, starting with approval of a constitutional amendment to turn the five-member elected PRC into a three-member body appointed by the governor. That amendment will go before voters in the November elections.
Then, in a 3-2 decision last summer, the commission refused to uphold clauses in the state’s new Energy Transition Act that allow Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover all its investments in coal plants from ratepayers when replacing those facilities with renewable generation. The governor had to appeal to the Supreme Court, which ordered the PRC in January to abide by the law.
And in this year’s legislative session, Democrats unsuccessfully pushed a bill to allow the governor to appoint two executives to oversee most PRC staff, which the commission opposed as an unconstitutional infringement on its regulatory authority.
The commission oversees electric, water and telecommunications utilities. It also presides over transportation companies, the Pipeline Safety Bureau and the state fire marshal.
PRC Chair Theresa Becenti-Aguilar said the governor has ignored the problems caused by the commission’ eviction.
“She’s doing business right across the street – in walking distance – but there hasn’t been even one phone call,” Becenti-Aguilar said. “We’ve never been invited to her office, and she’s never come to the PRC.”
GSD Secretary Ken Ortiz declined to comment on suggestions about “retaliation” against the PRC. But he said the state chose the PERA building for the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department because the Children Youth and Families Department is already housed there.
“The decision to co-locate those agencies there is to provide customers with easy access to like-minded services,” Ortiz said. “That’s the whole reason for doing this.”
Space tough to find
No other state-owned offices in Santa Fe are big enough to house the PRC, so the commission must independently find another space, Ortiz said.
“It’s a challenge in the Santa Fe area,” Ortiz said. “The GSD doesn’t own anything large enough for the commission.”
The PRC is authorized for 166 full-time employees, 32 of whom are assigned to the state fire marshal. That agency will remain at the PERA Building until July 1, 2021, when it becomes part of the state Homeland Security Department.
Of the PRC’s remaining 134 positions, eight remain vacant under a state hiring freeze, leaving the commission with 126 employees that need housing.
“For us to continue to provide good government service, we need office space for at least 40 or 50 people, including management and critical support divisions like IT,” Montoya said. “The rest could continue to telework until we have a permanent space, as they’ve been doing in the coronavirus.”
But the commission has no money even for temporary space for reduced staff. The governor vetoed $490,000 in funding in March, and another $364,000 was cut in a special session in June, reducing the PRC’s FY 2021 operating budget from $15.2 million to $14.35 million, Montoya said.
The commission is now seeking either a grant or loan from the Department of Finance and Administration.
Two large meeting spaces will remain open at the PERA Building for commission meetings until the end of the year, but all staffers must vacate their offices by Sept. 30.
“It’s unfair,” Becenti-Aguilar said. “I don’t think we should just be booted out the door. … Under constitutional statutes, I don’t believe the governor has the authority to leave us without an office space.”