What’s the purpose of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission? How are these state employees serving local communities? What are the priorities?
If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. Those who serve on the commission responsible for regulating public utility services are also trying to figure it out right now.
One thing is clear: the general responsibility of the PRC hasn’t changed. It must still ensure that utilities, telecommunications and motor carrier industries are adhering to state laws and charging New Mexicans fair prices.
How exactly the PRC carries out those tasks is what’s up in the air in year one of the new public regulation commission, which was overhauled by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2020. They approved changing it from a 5-person elected group to a 3-member panel appointed by New Mexico’s governor.
Commissioners Pat O’Connell, James Ellison and Gabriel Aguilera teamed up with their staff on Thursday to start putting together an updated mission statement and determine values, principles and long-term goals.
The current PRC mission statement commits to ensuring “fair and reasonable rates” as well as “reasonable and adequate services” for New Mexicans.
The meeting was guided by a third-party facilitator and was mostly open for public viewing.
PRC meetings happen every other Thursday and transition between open and closed sessions.
Thursday’s meeting included Zoom breakout room sessions that the public couldn’t watch.
Debating the most important principles
In the breakout sessions, New Mexico PRC staff looked at the goals and values of other states’ public regulation commissions and then shared what they agreed with publicly.
Commissioner Ellison said he wants to emulate other states that prioritize a responsibility to serve local communities. He said that type of language would be helpful to have in New Mexico’s mission statement.
“Our organization was created to serve the public,” he said.
The Washington Transportation Commission statement dictates that services should be equitable. That’s a term not included in New Mexico’s mission statement, said Arthur O’Donnell, PRC director of policy administration.
Commissioner Aguilera said in a private breakout room that Washington uses the term equitable to define what the transportation commission’s objective is, which is why it’s included in the state’s mission, according to O’Donnell.
O’Donnell said New Mexico could still do something similar. He said it’s important that the PRC statement is inclusive of all communities, similar to what Washington attempts.
“Whether they’re in co-ops or on Tribes or anything, it’s part of our job to make sure that this system works for everybody,” he said.
Electricity rates could spike for a quarter of the state in 2024. PRC officials will decide.
Washington’s commission also lays out accountability as a value to follow. Ellison said staff debated if that should be a stated value for New Mexico.
“It’s just kind of built into it that if you go off the rails somewhere, you need to course correct for it,” he said.
O’Donnell added that the PRC can and should be transparent. He said that could draw more people into working at the agency.
“What does it mean, to be able to assure people that you’re doing a good job?” he said. “And it’s like, not making it up as you go along. You have your principles in place.”
Other staff similarly said the PRC should be held accountable, be inclusive and work to serve the public.
Last month, the PRC transitioned to biweekly meetings, arguing it allows more time for commissioners to consider complicated matters but also creates more room for closed-door meetings. This led to criticism from government watchdogs for its lack of transparency.
Other general principles PRC staff brought up included respectfulness, integrity, professionalism, proactiveness, objectivity and steadfastness.
The staff’s long-term goals reflected many of the same values. O’Donnell said PRC members need to be highly trained and knowledgeable.
He said the PRC should also aim to go to court less often. Investor-owned utilities have repeatedly appealed commission orders over the past years with the New Mexico Supreme Court and multiple cases are ongoing that directly affect New Mexicans’ utility bills.
“We make decisions that are record-based, defensible and balanced,” he said. “And hopefully that will lead to lasting policy decisions that are not challenged.”
A clean energy transition required by law
New Mexico law requires utilities to gradually transition to using clean energy over the next few decades. That’s prompted the PRC to spend a lot of time guiding utilities in the state away from fossil fuel usage.
With this in mind, the agency’s staff considered if clean energy initiatives should be part of their mission statement.
Ellison said other states’ regulatory agencies that he and his staff looked at, such as Michigan or Washington, don’t include any environmentally-conscious priorities in their statements.
He said it was a point of contention in their discussion on if New Mexico should act differently and directly include it.
“That’s something that we have to do that’s a legal constraint, but is it our mission?” Ellison said.
PRC legal division director Bradford Borman said the terminology “clean” can also be very vague and mean different things to different people.
O’Donnell said there are common elements everyone agrees on, like making sure New Mexicans have to pay fair and reasonable prices for services. But terms like clean energy and equitability that have come into the conversation aren’t formalized with the commission yet, he said.
It’s up to staff now to figure out if they want that to be part of their mission, O’Donnell said.
“While safe, reliable and affordable are part of the firmament, these other concepts which are important have not yet made that case,” he said. “So if we put them in our mission statement, then we’ll be making that case.”
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