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Editorial: Journal announces endorsements for PRC and state constitutional amendments

Today, the Journal announces its endorsements for contested Public Regulation Commission seats and proposed amendments to the state Constitution. For more information, including previously published endorsements, candidate Q&As, district maps and news stories as they are published, go to the Albuquerque Journal’s 2020 election guide at ABQJournal.com/election2020.

Public Regulation Commission, District 1

Democratic incumbent, Cynthia B. Hall

Hall has an impressive background and the regulatory experience needed to sift through reams of documents to make sound utility regulation decisions. She is a former associate general counsel of the PRC and staff attorney for its predecessor, the Public Service Commission. She also was a hearing examiner, fraud prosecutor and associate general counsel of the Superintendent of Insurance.

Hall told the Editorial Board she was shocked to learn how little PRC commissioners knew when she joined the agency. As the PRC’s general counsel, she advised on final recommendations, routinely with 150-to-200-page opinions.

Hall says she ran for the PRC because it needed expertise. The PRC has clashed repeatedly with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators over various issues, including implementation of the state’s new Energy Transition Act.

Hall, who describes herself as an environmentalist, notes electric utilities are monopolies and the biggest emitters of carbon pollution. She says she wants to continue to push them to provide affordable, sustainable energy and has the background and regulatory experience to make it happen.

Although elected herself, Hall supports a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate elections to the PRC, potentially limiting her second term to two years. She said appointments to the PRC worked fine for 55 years until elections were implemented two decades ago. “The 20-year experiment with elections has worsened the problems of commissioner corruption and incompetence,” she said.

Hall faces Republican Janice Arnold-Jones to represent the Albuquerque metro district on the PRC.

Public Regulation Commission, District 3

Democrat, Joseph Maestas

Maestas has the engineering and political background to make good decisions on the PRC. He is a licensed engineer with over 30 years of experience, a former mayor in Española and city councilor in both Española and Santa Fe.

Maestas says the PRC has a duty to set the guidelines needed to realize the goals of the Energy Transition Act, which requires public utilities to convert the electric grid to 100% renewable energy and carbon-free generation by 2045. The PRC must oversee the transition, including the shutdown of fossil fuel facilities, choosing energy resources to replace them, and balancing consumer and utility interests when setting rates.

Maestas opposes eliminating PRC elections. “Utility rates are low because regulatory commissioners are elected,” he said. Instead, he wants to unify the executive and legislative branches by transforming the PRC into a “quality regulatory organization” with a shared vision for clean energy. He also says he wants to ensure adequate, consistent funding for the PRC – which currently lacks a home building – and fairly implement energy-related state legislation. “I support the ETA’s renewable energy goals to achieve a clean energy future and close coal power plants,” he said. “I will fight for consumers through advocacy and expanded energy efficiency and management.”

Maestas understands New Mexico is a poor state that cannot afford higher electric costs. He has the background needed to balance the interests of utilities and ratepayers while the state transitions to green energy. He faces Libertarian Party candidate Chris Luchini to succeed Commissioner Valerie Espinoza and represent the north-central district.

Constitutional Amendment 1

Approval recommended

This proposed constitutional amendment is the result of good bipartisan work by state lawmakers seeking to depoliticize the PRC and make it more professional.

The bipartisan amendment that passed the House in 2019 by a 59-8 vote and the Senate 36-5 would eliminate unnecessary elections to the quasi-judicial body – which really is a technocratic institution that should have no role in policymaking – and replace the five elected commissioners with three appointed commissioners.

The ballot measure would create a nominating committee to develop a list of candidates, and the governor would appoint three from the list, with the consent of the state Senate. Of the three commissioners, no more than two could be of the same political party. They would serve six-year terms and be limited to two terms. State lawmakers would be responsible for passing laws to decide the qualifications and education requirements for commissioners.

If approved by voters by a simple majority, this year will mark the last time PRC commissioners are elected, and few will notice the loss. While important to daily lives, they have been low-information, down-ballot races. And while the most recent commissioners and candidates have been more qualified, the PRC has had numerous scandals, running from felony convictions to violence from extramarital affairs to embezzlement to fuel a drug habit. We’ve called it the piñata of N.M. politics because it’s an easy target to hit, even blindfolded.

The amendment is supported by numerous disparate groups, including the N.M. Association of Commerce and Industry, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, Conservation Voters New Mexico and the Rio Grande Foundation.

They note the PRC has been dysfunctional, lacking competence, ethics and expertise. The PRC decides things like how much New Mexicans pay for electricity, natural gas service, landline phones, tow trucks, even ambulance services. For N.M. business to move forward, they say, it needs a consistent and professional regulatory environment.

Adoption of the amendment would put us with the vast majority of states that have appointed utility regulators.

Constitutional Amendment 2

Approval recommended

This proposed constitutional amendment would permit state lawmakers to adjust and stagger the terms of state, county or district officers to ensure uniformity of elections and balance the number of offices in any particular year.

The amendment is part of sweeping election law reform that was passed in 2019 to consolidate local elections. It would likely reduce the number of down-ballot judicial candidates every two years, allowing voters more time to focus on those and other races.

For example, this year there are about 30 judges on Bernalillo County ballots, most of them retention votes. While many are uncontested, it’s a lot to ask voters to school themselves on 17 judicial retention elections for the 2nd Judicial District plus a retention vote for the state Court of Appeals while also balancing races for the state Supreme and Appeals courts, state House and Senate, U.S. House and Senate, PRC, county commission, state and local bond issues and president.

While district attorneys, the New Mexico Association of Counties and a coalition of state judges and Metro Court judges challenged this part of the 2019 reforms in court, they have been silent on the amendment.

To guard against shenanigans, the enabling legislation requires a “legislative finding” any adjustment to the terms of office is only to provide for consistency in the timing of elections or balance the number of offices on the ballot. The amendment would eliminate the need for constitutional amendments for each office in which the election cycle is changed and would also help minimize “voter fatigue.”

editorials

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.

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