Bad reputation plagues PRC’s performance
Study cites relatively meager staffing, lack of professional development
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.