SANTA FE – For the first time, non-incumbent New Mexico Public Regulation Commission candidates are facing a requirement this year that they possess a certain amount of educational and work experience.
The verdict so far? All candidates running for seats on the five-member PRC have affirmed they have the necessary qualifications – and none of their claims has been formally challenged.
But disagreements have arisen over the process used to gauge whether candidates meet the minimum requirements.
Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s office says the fledgling state law clearly stipulates that only voters can contest whether a PRC candidate fails to meet the qualifications. Such challenges must be filed in state court by an already-passed deadline.
Determining whether a candidate meets the new standards is “not the role of the secretary of state,” Duran’s chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, told the Journal .
The Secretary of State’s Office has required all PRC candidates to sign an affidavit stating that they meet the minimum criteria.
However, Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the 2013 bill that established the minimum qualifications, said the affidavit form developed by the Secretary of State’s Office does not go far enough.
“The legislation clearly intended for candidates to list their qualifications, not just sign a piece of paper,” Keller told the Journal .
He also said he’d like to see the Secretary of State’s office play a more active role in determining the validity of a candidate’s qualifications.
Similarly, PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, said the new law should be amended to require candidates to show proof of their qualifications. She also said the time period should be extended for filing court challenges. Currently, such challenges must be filed within 10 days after a candidate files to run.
“If nobody is going to be the gatekeeper of the criteria, then pretty much anybody can still run,” Espinoza said.
The new qualifications for the scandal-tainted PRC were signed into law in 2013, after state voters overwhelmingly passed a 2012 constitutional amendment that was one of several changes aimed at overhauling the powerful regulatory agency.
Under the final version of the bill, the minimum requirements for PRC members are as follows: At least 10 years of professional experience in an area regulated by the PRC, or a combined 10 years of relevant work and higher education experience. The higher education piece must be accompanied by a license or degree in order to count.
There is also a third way to meet the qualifications requirement, as incumbent PRC commissioners were grandfathered in under the law and deemed automatically qualified.
Three incumbent PRC commissioners – Ben Hall, R-Ruidoso; Pat Lyons, R-Cuervo and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, D-Albuquerque – are up for re-election this year, although Becenti-Aguilar was defeated by former PRC member Lynda Lovejoy in the June primary election.
Another former commissioner, Sandy Jones, a Democrat, is running against Hall in PRC District 5, while Lyons and Lovejoy are unopposed in the Nov. 4 general election.
Both Jones and Lovejoy could likely include their PRC experience as part of their qualifications. Neither candidate has faced a voter challenge.
Jones, who does not have a college degree, believes beefed-up training for PRC commissioners would be more helpful than the minimum qualifications, though he said of the new law: “I hope it’s a success for the PRC, because the PRC needs it.”
Meanwhile, Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank that promoted the PRC overhaul, said Lovejoy and other candidates have already touted the minimum qualifications on the campaign trail.
“It will take a few election cycles for the results of the higher standards to make an impact at the PRC, but we are confident that they will eventually make a big positive difference over the long term,” Nathan said.
The fledgling law also requires that all PRC commissioners complete ethics training and at least 32 hours per year of continuing education.