PRC amendment is facing a legal challenge - Albuquerque Journal

PRC amendment is facing a legal challenge

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is housed in a building on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A petition filed with the state Supreme Court aims to block a voter-approved measure overhauling the Public Regulation Commission before it goes into effect next year.

The litigation takes aim at a constitutional amendment that’s set to turn the PRC – now an elected body – into a three-person panel appointed by the governor. It was approved by 56% of voters in 2020 and goes into effect Jan. 1 next year.

Sarah Shore, an Albuquerque attorney who filed the petition on behalf of three nonprofit groups, said the ballot measure was deceptively worded and didn’t state that voters would lose their right to elect commissioners – a right that’s especially important, she said, to Native American communities.

It also improperly rolled multiple questions into one yes-or-no vote, Shore said, rather than allowing voters to decide each item separately.

“Voters cannot make an informed choice about a proposed constitutional amendment unless the ballot question clearly and accurately apprises them of the amendment and its effects,” Shore said in a written statement. “The ballot here did not do that, and it was fundamentally undemocratic.”

The 23-page petition asks the Supreme Court to nullify the constitutional amendment.

But supporters of the measure say it wouldn’t be appropriate to overturn the results of an election.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat and co-sponsor of the PRC legislation, said the ballot measure won overwhelming support from both chambers of the Legislature, in addition to a solid majority of voters – “a clear sign that people were ready for this important change,” he said.

Years of work, he said, went into it.

“I’m confident that the Supreme Court will find no merit to this petition,” Wirth said. “Bipartisan efforts to reform the PRC have been years in the making, and included extensive engagement with the public on the scope and significance of the changes being proposed.”

Supporters of the measure say the new system was designed to mimic the way judges are selected and ensure qualified commissioners are in position to regulate utility companies.

The measure calls for an independent nominating committee to set professional qualifications and vet the candidates before the governor picks an appointee.

The PRC is now a five-member board elected by voters.

Over the years, efforts to reshape the commission surfaced periodically as two of its members were convicted of felonies and another lost a sexual harassment trial.

The legal petition was filed on behalf of Indigenous Lifeways, New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute and the Three Sisters Collective, nonprofit groups that work on environmental restoration on tribal lands in northwestern New Mexico.

The ballot question asked voters to decide whether to amend the state Constitution “to provide that the public regulation commission consist of three members appointed by the governor from a list of professionally qualified nominees submitted to the governor by a nominating committee as provided by law and that the commission is required to regulate public utilities and may be required to regulate other public service companies.”

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