New Mexicans should demand PRC reform
As a former candidate for the Public Regulation Commission, I have some thoughts prompted by Think New Mexico’s report on PRC reform and the resignation of Jerome Block Jr.
Why I ran for the PRC
In 2010, I ran for the PRC because I believed the commission needed more commissioners with a background in economics and energy and telecommunications policy in order to improve decision-making in Santa Fe on behalf of all New Mexicans.
During my campaign, I told many audiences that, if I were elected to the PRC and the commission still could not get its act together, I would happily work myself out the job by asking the state Legislature to consider a full range of reforms, including proposing a state constitutional amendment to the voters to eliminate the PRC altogether.
In the interest of full disclosure, I lost the Republican primary to Ben Hall, who ultimately went on to prevail in the general election.
Thoughts on PRC structural reform
Now that Block has resigned, Think New Mexico has rolled out a report proposing reforms to the PRC. I applaud their work in putting forth nonpartisan ideas for the public and policymakers to debate.
I agree with many of their ideas, including deregulation of the motor-carrier industry, like taxis and shuttles. I also agree with commonsense proposals like reorganizing functions of the PRC by moving them to existing state agencies – for example, moving the corporations function under the Secretary of State’s office – in order to better serve the public and to refocus the PRC and its commissioners on the most important functions, such as regulating utilities and telecommunication companies.
Lawmakers could also consider moving the Insurance Division over to the Regulation & Licensing Department, which already oversees the Securities and Financial Institutions divisions, now that the federal government has lowered barriers to grouping these three financial functions under a single roof. Given last year’s attention on the Blue Cross/Blue Shield rate increase request, it’s clear that some sort of structural reform of the insurance division is necessary.
As I campaigned around Southwestern New Mexico, Democrats and Republicans alike whose individual insurance policy rates increased were vocal about their disgust with the process in which the PRC’s commissioners had no authority to change the decision made by the unelected insurance superintendent. A clear need exists to create the accountability that the public desires – accountability that is currently lacking with the insurance division housed under the PRC.
We should all be encouraged that Commission Chairman Pat Lyons – a Republican – and Commissioner Jason Marks – a Democrat – are welcoming a discussion of these proposals. However, Commissioner Hall’s statement to the Albuquerque Journal that “I guarantee if they introduce it in the Legislature, I will be up there trying to stop it” – this before any public debate on the proposals have even commenced – should concern everyone. Statements like this make New Mexicans wonder if Hall is more interested in clinging to the power and influence he currently has than making government function better and more efficiently.
Who should be in the job?
One of Think New Mexico’s best proposals is to require that commissioners have a four-year degree or five years of relevant professional experience. But given the negative reactions by Commissioners Hall and Theresa Becenti-Aguilar at a press conference held earlier this week, it’s no surprise that they opposed and are perhaps offended by this idea because they don’t have degrees. And based on their backgrounds, whether they meet the proposed “relevant” professional experience benchmark is questionable.
What these two commissioners fail to understand is that regulating industries like utilities and telecom require serious technical skills. But since the PRC’s inception in the late 1990s, the electorate has demonstrated that it’s not in the minimum-qualification vetting business, resulting in some of the least-qualified and most ethically challenged people being elected to the commission.
Block’s resignation creates an opportunity for the governor to appoint someone from District 3 with solid credentials to the PRC. A list of 17 applicants appeared recently, and while some applicants have interesting backgrounds and exotic advanced degrees, there don’t appear to be any candidates who possess the background germane to what is needed. New Mexico needs better-qualified candidates with legal, economics or regulatory policy experience.
A time for electoral reform as well
What Think New Mexico did not consider in its report is reforms to the electoral process, which should go hand in hand with structural reform. The PRC falls under New Mexico’s Voter Action Act, which provides public financing to qualifying candidates.
A modest reform to the act would require candidates to participate in public, televised debates, as is done in Arizona. To stop the debate ducking that occurred last cycle in District 5, candidates who want the public’s money should face the public. This would allow new and unknown candidates to compete on a more level playing field against incumbents and other candidates who have been on the ballot before. Debates might also stoke increased interest by the public in the PRC races.
We get the government we deserve
Given the turmoil on the PRC in the last 10 years, I hope that New Mexicans demand reform of this very important commission. Call your legislator and ask that they start down the path of getting the PRC – and New Mexico – back on track. However, if New Mexicans ignore much of what’s been proposed by Think New Mexico, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we continue to get more of the same.
Estrada was a Republican candidate for the PRC, District 5, in 2010. He previously served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing in the George W. Bush administration, where he directed policy for the manufacturing, communications and energy sectors.
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