Chairwoman says move would take away voice of rural residents
FARMINGTON — A local state lawmaker says problems with a lack of expertise and politics have plagued the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission since it was created, and he hopes to change the way members of that body are selected.
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, says those problems could be solved if PRC commissioners were appointed by the governor with the approval of the Senate, rather than elected.
Neville has sponsored a bill and a Senate joint resolution that would do just that. But PRC Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar says appointing the commissioners would take away the voice of some New Mexicans, especially those in rural areas.
“Since the commission was formed, there have been problems of commissioners not being qualified to serve, not being able to handle the technical issues before it, commissioners with criminal problems,” Neville said in an email statement. “We need more professionalism and less politics involved in selecting qualified people to serve.”
Becenti-Aguilar said there have been ethics problems associated with some commissioners in the past, but she believes there are commissioners who are honest people working to help their constituents. She said the question of qualifications could also be raised in regard to state senators or the governor. Becenti-Aguilar said highly experienced staff members advise the commission in its various jurisdictions, including transportation and utilities.
“My feeling is that this is the people’s government,” she said.
Becenti-Aguilar began her first term as a PRC commissioner in July 2010 after being appointed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. She then was elected to the position months later. She said campaigning requires traveling the state and talking to people who are impacted by decisions at the PRC.
PRC formed when an elected and an appointed commission merged
The PRC regulates the state fire marshal, transportation services such as ambulances and taxis, and certain utilities. It was formed when the state Corporation Commission was essentially merged with the Public Utility Commission following the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 1996 by popular vote.
The constitutional amendment created the Public Regulation Commission, which consists of five elected members. While the amendment was approved in 1996, it did not go into effect until 1999.
The Public Utility Commission consisted of three members appointed by the governor, while the Corporation Commission had three elected members.
The Corporation Commission had regulated the telephone, insurance and trucking industries, as well as interstate oil and gas pipelines, registered corporations and the state Fire Marshal’s Office. The Public Utility Commission regulated electric, natural gas, water and wastewater utilities.
Neville also proposes adding experience requirements
Neville’s bill and Senate joint resolution proposes replacing the elected commissioners with appointed commissioners as their terms expire. No more than three commissioners could be members of the same political party.
The Senate joint resolution and the bill also would add qualifications to who could be appointed. One appointee would be an attorney licensed to practice in New Mexico. Another would be an engineer registered in the state. The commission also would include a certified public accountant and a person who had at least five years of experience working in an industry regulated by the PRC. The final member would be a member of the public.
Past attempts to change the PRC from elected to appointed have been unsuccessful
There have been more than a dozen bills or joint resolutions sponsored since 1999 that proposed making some or all of the PRC commissioners appointed rather than elected. None of those bills or joint resolutions were passed. This is the second time Neville has sponsored a joint resolution that would change the PRC from elected to appointed. He sponsored a similar joint resolution in 2016.
His current Senate joint resolution is one of two before the Legislature this session that looks at changing the PRC membership from elected to appointed. The other Senate joint resolution, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, calls for three elected commissioners and two appointed by the governor.
If either Senate joint resolution passes, it would require the adoption of a constitutional amendment. That means voters ultimately would decide the issue.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.