House approves PRC qualifications bill

February 14, 2013 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Future members of New Mexico’s utility regulatory agency will need to meet increased qualifications for the $90,000-a-year job under legislation unanimously approved Thursday by the House.

The proposal, which heads to the Senate where there is a competing measure, will carry out a directive from voters in a constitutional amendment approved last year.

The bill will require future candidates for the Public Regulation Commission to have a combined 12 years of professional experience or higher education in a field related to the regulatory agency, such as economics, accounting, engineering, finance, law, earth sciences and government administration.

The standards will not apply to the current five members on the commission. Continuing education also would be required of commissioners, who now need only to be 18 years old and state residents.

Under the legislation, current and future commissioners won’t be paid if they fail to complete a [auth] requirement for at least 80 hours of continuing education in their first year in office and at least 40 hours in each subsequent year.

“As we know, the PRC has extraordinary power in our state,” Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said. “The voters have rightly said that we should come up with some minimum qualifications to make sure this body is managed competently with good qualified people. I think this is a great step for them.”

The PRC’s decisions touch the lives of most New Mexicans because the agency sets rates for electric and natural gas utilities and some telecommunications services. It also regulates motor carriers such as taxis, moving vans and ambulances.

The commission was created by a 1996 constitutional amendment that merged two regulatory agencies, but it’s been tarnished by scandals that led to several constitutional amendments voters approved in November to overhaul the regulator. One measure creates an independent insurance regulator, moving that responsibility out of the PRC.

In 2011, a PRC member resigned after pleading guilty to felony charges that included the misuse of a state-issued gasoline credit card. Another commissioner was ousted in 2010 after being convicted of battery and burglary for attacking another woman who allegedly had an affair with her husband. A deputy insurance superintendent in the commission was convicted in 2008 for coercing insurance companies to donate money to charity in exchange for reducing regulatory fines.

Think New Mexico, an independent think tank, was the driving force behind the PRC overhaul, including requiring minimum qualifications for future candidates. The voter-approved amendment left it to lawmakers to decide the specifics of those qualifications, however.

“This vote shows that the House has taken seriously the popular mandate to substantively increase commissioner qualifications by passing a bill that does so in a thoughtful and balanced way,” said Fred Nathan, the think tank’s executive director.

A Senate bill takes a different approach than the House measure. Some senators have expressed concern that requiring academic degrees could exclude people with broad professional experience from running for the commission.

Under the House measure, it’s possible for someone to qualify as a PRC candidate with 12 years of relevant professional experience and no higher education degree — or it could be a combination of experience and education.

PRC candidates, under the Senate proposal, could meet the qualifications requirement several ways: Having at least three years of experience running a government agency or office responsible for utilities, transportation or construction; five years of senior management experience in a private business regulated by the PRC or an advocacy group involved in regulatory issues; or being a licensed engineer, certified public accountant or lawyer.

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