Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Appointed PRC should not serve at pleasure of governor

I became a PRC commissioner in 2013 after being elected by voters to represent District 3. I was re-elected by voters to serve a second four-year term as a PRC commissioner in 2016, and I served as a PRC commissioner until December 31, 2020, when I was termed out. During my years serving as a PRC commissioner, I proudly promoted the public interest in all matters that came before me.

However, between 1999 and now, other commissioners tarnished the reputation of the PRC. The public perceived the PRC as dysfunctional, and some commissioners were perceived as being too cozy with regulated utilities. This led to New Mexico voters passing a constitutional amendment in 2020, under which, effective Jan. 1, 2023, the five elected PRC commissioners will be replaced by three commissioners appointed by the governor, with the consent of the Senate, from a list of nominees submitted to the governor by a nominating commission. Clearly, the purpose of the constitutional amendment was to reform the PRC by transforming it to be led by experts in public utility regulation, independent and insulated from political influences.

Section 1(E) of the constitutional amendment reads, “A commission member may be removed by impeachment for accepting anything of value from a person or entity whose charges for services to the public are regulated by the commission, malfeasance, misfeasance or neglect of duty .” The NM Secretary of State’s 2020 General Election Voter Guide states that, under the constitutional amendment, commissioners “may only be removed by impeachment.”

Imagine, then, my surprise when I learned of a legal opinion prepared by an assistant attorney general for the nominating committee, dated Sept. 28, which concludes appointed commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the governor, meaning they can be removed by the governor without specified cause.”

If appointed commissioners can be removed by the governor for no cause, passage of the constitutional amendment does not serve its intended purpose, which is for the PRC to be headed by experts in the field of public utility regulation, who are insulated from political influences. Regardless of who serves as the governor of New Mexico, it is not a stretch to contemplate a governor removing an appointed commissioner if that commissioner does not do as the governor pleases. Even if that does not happen, the mere fact an appointed commissioner could be fired by the governor for any reason likely would cause voters to question the impartiality of any vote by an appointed commissioner. In fact, according to the PRC’s home page, one of the applicants to be an appointed NMPRC commissioner is Christine Bustos. Bustos was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as a Rio Arriba county commissioner, and she is a private insurance agent, with no evident experience in public utility regulation.

If the assistant attorney general’s opinion that appointed commissioners “will serve at the pleasure of the governor” is correct, the legislature needs to amend the Public Regulation Commission Act to make clear appointed PRC commissioners can only be removed through impeachment.

If appointed commissioners will be subject to being removed by the governor without cause, I regret having proposed to Sen. Peter Wirth the constitutional amendment to make PRC commissioners appointed. It would be a disservice to New Mexicans if a commissioner is appointed and then removed because that commissioner makes a ruling that is at odds with the governor’s agenda.

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