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Editorial: For all its faults, PRC still deserves an office

The state Public Regulation Commission has a big job and a bad reputation.

On the big job side of the ledger, the PRC decides things like how much New Mexicans pay for electricity, natural gas service, landline phones and tow trucks. It regulates ambulance services. In its oversight of regulated utilities, its job is to balance the interests of shareholders and ratepayers when it comes to things like your electric bill – which no doubt most of you have noticed during this long, hot summer.

And its job isn’t just cost. It’s also about reliability.

On the other side of the ledger, the PRC has had so many self-inflicted wounds in its sordid history – running the gamut from felony convictions to violence stemming from extramarital affairs to embezzlement from taxpayers to fuel a drug habit – that it has earned its place as the piñata of New Mexico politics. It’s an easy target to hit, even blindfolded.

But in defense of the big job part of its résumé, it is unconscionable that the PRC and its roughly 126 employees are being evicted from their state government offices in Santa Fe when its budget doesn’t have money to lease a new office – or for that matter to even pay for moving expenses or temporary storage.

“The state General Services Division (which reports directly to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham) issued us an eviction letter with no appropriations provided and nothing in the current operating budget to lease an office,” said PRC Chief of Staff Jason Montoya. “We’ve been told that no other state space will be made available for the PRC in the near future.”

The commission’s current out-the-door date is Sept. 30.

“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 … as they’ve been doing in the coronavirus.”

The Lujan Grisham administration says it needs the office space to house the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department. That’s fine. The space consolidation to help with one-stop services makes sense.

But throwing the PRC to the wolves isn’t fine. Even though it’s an independent agency, the governor and the state risk a big black eye by putting the commission out on the street.

Maybe they could set up some tents on the Plaza.

The agency did raise the governor’s hackles earlier this year in its 3-2 decision regarding the Energy Transition Act. The PRC rejected automatic application of ETA clauses that allowed Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover investment in the San Juan Generating Station, a coal plant, after replacing the plant’s power with renewables. The governor prevailed in the state Supreme Court.

So is this eviction debacle a case of sore winner?

Republicans in the Legislature say it is.

A letter from GOP leadership in the House said they were “dismayed” at what seems to be a “vindictive reaction” to the PRC. “The failure to provide this constitutionally established entity with a proper location to conduct its statutory responsibilities is, frankly, incomprehensible,” they said in a letter to the governor.

It’s worth noting that the governor vetoed $490,000 in PRC money in March. Another $364,000 was cut during the special session in June.

PRC Chair Theresa Becenti-Aguilar said the governor has ignored the problems caused by the eviction.

“She’s doing business right across the street – in walking distance – but there hasn’t been even one phone call.”

She added: “It’s unfair. I don’t think we should just be booted out the door.”

The current elected commission’s days, hopefully, are numbered. Voters in November will decide whether beginning in 2023 the five elected members will be replaced by a three-member panel appointed by the governor from a list presented to her. Her nominees would be subject to Senate approval, and only two commission members could be from the same party. Lawmakers would set out qualifications and education requirements.

This would be a major improvement and would put us on the list of a majority of states that have put professionalism over politics in this important regulatory function.

But it doesn’t change the fact that for now this constitutionally established regulatory body, whose decisions affect virtually every New Mexican, is being tossed out of its office with nowhere to go.

This makes New Mexico look terrible. The governor should step in as a peacemaker and problem-solver. It’s a lot better to be a gracious winner than a vindictive one.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.