Bad rep­u­ta­tion plagues PRC’s per­for­mance

Study cites rel­a­tively mea­ger staffing, lack of pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Steve Ter­rell

The New Mex­ico Pub­lic Reg­u­la­tion Com­mis­sion, which in past years was plagued with scan­dals, has trou­ble main­tain­ing and hir­ing staff be­cause of the “bad rep­u­ta­tion” of the com­mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to many peo­ple in­ter­viewed for a newly re­leased study by a na­tional re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion spe­cial­iz­ing in state util­ity reg­u­la­tion.

The 37-page re­port, com­mis­sioned by the state Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil Ser­vices, also said the Com­mis­sion has a “par­tic­u­larly se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion” be­cause of an ap­par­ent ab­sence of “pro­fes­sional staff de­vel­op­ment and con­tin­ued ed­u­ca­tion.”

The study, per­formed by the Na­tional Reg­u­la­tory Re­search In­sti­tute, says the PRC is unique among sim­i­lar agen­cies in other states be­cause of “the mea­ger staff for ad­vis­ing the com­mis­sion­ers and oth­ers dur­ing pend­ing cases. We con­sider this a se­ri­ous prob­lem that makes it dif­fi­cult for com­mis­sion­ers to make well-in­formed de­ci­sions.”

While each com­mis­sioner in New Mex­ico is as­signed one staff mem­ber,

the re­port said “in re­cent years, com­mis­sion­ers gen­er­ally have cho­sen their as­sis­tants to be of­fice man­agers or per­form ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions.”

And the re­port rec­om­mends the Leg­is­la­ture should de­mand a com­pre­hen­sive au­dit of the agency.

Com­mis­sioner Va­lerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, said in an email Thurs­day, “This re­port hits the ham­mer on the nail and I could not agree more with this com­pre­hen­sive re­port. … I’ve never been able to un­der­stand why there is no fund­ing and or bud­get avail­able for train­ing and de­vel­op­ment of our staff …”

As for the rep­u­ta­tion of the com­mis­sion, Espinoza said: “I think our rep­u­ta­tion has stuck like glue but on the other hand, we have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in ser­vices, ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency.”

Espinoza was the only one of the five com­mis­sion­ers to re­spond for a re­quest for com­ment.

Since the com­mis­sion was cre­ated in the late 1990s, there have been nu­mer­ous con­tro­ver­sies and scan­dals. In 2011, Com­mis­sioner Jerome Block Jr., D-Santa Fe, pleaded guilty to mul­ti­ple felony charges for mis­us­ing his state-is­sued gaso­line card and for mis­us­ing pub­lic cam­paign funds. Months be­fore, another com­mis­sioner, Carol Sloan, D-Gallup, was forced to re­signed af­ter be­ing found guilty on a felony as­sault charge. Be­fore that, the state had to pay $841,842, which went to a for­mer em­ployee who sued then-Com­mis­sioner David King, R-Alam­ogordo, for sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

The re­port fo­cuses on the com­mis­sion’s tech­ni­cal staff — ac­coun­tants, econ­o­mists, en­gi­neers, fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts and pub­lic pol­icy ex­perts — whose main job is to as­sist com­mis­sion­ers to make “well-formed de­ci­sions that are in the pub­lic in­ter­est.” The re­port’s au­thors —Na­tional Reg­u­la­tory Re­search In­sti­tute ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Ra­jnish Barua and prin­ci­pal re­searcher Ken Costello — com­pared the New Mex­ico agency’s staffing prac­tices with other state util­ity com­mis­sions and “best prac­tices.”

As with state reg­u­la­tory agen­cies around the coun­try, the re­port found New Mex­ico’s com­mis­sion “faces in­creas­ing de­mands for ex­am­ple, from the Leg­is­la­ture stake­hold­ers and shrink­ing re­sources. This death-spi­ral­type con­di­tion, in our opin­ion, has se­ri­ously jeop­ar­dized the ca­pa­bil­ity of the PRC to pro­tect the pub­lic in­ter­est. The re­al­ity is that a re­duc­tion in PRC ex­pen­di­tures rarely means a com­men­su­rate de­cline in work­load. Fre­quently, a state util­ity com­mis­sion has to un­der­take more tasks with less money, a sit­u­a­tion that can spi­ral into a sit­u­a­tion where the com­mis­sion is un­able to ad­e­quately ad­dress the is­sues brought be­fore it.”

Espinoza praised the com­mis­sion’s “uniquely tal­ented and qual­i­fied staff ” but said it’s im­pos­si­ble to re­tain them be­cause util­i­ties like PNM or New Mex­ico Gas Com­pany quite fre­quently lure them away with much higher salaries. She also said the State Per­son­nel Of­fice re­quires too many years of ex­pe­ri­ence­for some po­si­tions.

“Face it, util­ity grad­u­ates and ex­perts of the sort, are few and far be­tween and can work at Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory for three, four times the salary,” she said.

The re­port says the struc­ture of New Mex­ico’s com­mis­sion is sim­i­lar to reg­u­la­tory agen­cies in other states in that there is a chief of staff with sev­eral di­vi­sions re­port­ing to him.

Un­like any other state, how­ever, the New Mex­ico com­mis­sion also over­sees the state Fire Mar­shal’s of­fice, which has 34 full-time em­ploy­ees — about a quar­ter of all PRC em­ploy­ees.

The study notes New Mex­ico is one of only 13 states in which vot­ers elect their com­mis­sion­ers rather than hav­ing the gover­nor ap­point them.

“The gen­eral per­cep­tion among reg­u­la­tory ex­perts is that when reg­u­la­tors are elected rather than ap­pointed by the gover­nor with leg­isla­tive con­fir­ma­tion, pol­i­tics be­come a big­ger fac­tor in their de­ci­sions and other prac­tices,” the re­port says.

But the re­port later says that ev­i­dence is some­what mixed on whether util­ity con­sumers ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit, on a long-term per­spec­tive, with elected reg­u­la­tors.

Pro­pos­als to have the gover­nor ap­point com­mis­sion­ers pe­ri­od­i­cally arise in the state Leg­is­la­ture. Espinoza, who in past years has op­posed the idea, in re­cent months has changed her mind.

There is one bright spot with the PRC, the re­port noted. “Un­like some other elected states, how­ever, the New Mex­ico com­mis­sion­ers re­ceive only pub­lic funds in their cam­paigns. Com­mis­sion­ers run­ning for elec­tion to the Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion and the Ok­la­homa Cor­po­ra­tion Com­mis­sion, in con­trast, re­ceive much of their cam­paign fund­ing from oil and nat­u­ral gas in­ter­ests. In the elected states of Alabama, Ge­or­gia and Louisiana, fund­ing can come from lob­by­ists. What this sug­gests is that the PRC seems to be less cap­tured by those whom they reg­u­late than in some other elected states.”

New Mex­ico com­mis­sion­ers don’t au­to­mat­i­cally get pub­lic fund­ing. Espinoza, who ran un­op­posed, and Com­mis­sioner Cyn­thia Hall, D-Al­bu­querque, funded their own cam­paigns last year. For­mer Com­mis­sioner Karen Mon­toya, who lost last year’s Demo­cratic pri­mary to Hall, used pub­lic funds in her race. Mon­toya had been ac­cused by some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists for be­ing too close to Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­pany of New Mex­ico.

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