Let voters decide on PRC reform
The scandal-plagued Public Regulation Commission clearly needs structural reform. All that stands in the way of voters getting the chance to implement it is Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez.
I literally laughed out loud when I read this quote from Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez the other day:
“Do you honestly believe that if you have a degree you can’t mess up?” he asked NMPolitics.net’s Gwyneth Doland.
Sanchez was explaining to Doland his skepticism that increased qualifications for Public Regulation Commission members would help clean up the scandal-plagued agency. Doland later broke the news that Sanchez’s stance might doom three proposed constitutional amendments to reform the PRC in the current legislative session.
The quote made me laugh because, while a degree obviously doesn’t mean someone won’t “mess up,” a legislative subcommittee Sanchez co-chaired in 2002 studied the issue and recommended – you guessed it – increasing qualifications for PRC members.
“The members agreed that defining qualifications in law is important to ensure that commissioners have the background and experience necessary to understand the complex issues involved in decisions that impact the business and citizens of New Mexico,” that committee’s report states. Read the executive summary here.
Sanchez is now saying that 2002 report was intended to suggest options the Legislature could consider, not to endorse any specific idea.
Wrong! The report makes clear what the committee wanted:
- Though it didn’t endorse any specific proposals, the committee made clear that it thought commissioners needed to be better qualified: “This would include debate on whether commissioners should be appointed or elected, and would address the need for qualifications to ensure that commissioners have the background and experience necessary to understand complex regulatory issues,” the report states.
- An independent insurance office: “The regulation of insurance should be elevated from its current status as a division of the PRC to an independent department of insurance.”
- Moving corporate functions: “The responsibilities for corporations should be transferred to the secretary of state to consolidate commerce and industry documentation and records and create a more efficient system for business transactions in New Mexico.”
Saying you did something without doing anything
The report sat on a shelf for 10 years. It was the ultimate example of being able to say you did something without actually doing anything. Meanwhile, the PRC grew into one of the most scandal-plagued government agencies in New Mexico – one that has seen two elected officials forced from office because of felony convictions in recent years.
Now Think New Mexico proposes the same three ideas I highlighted from that 2002 report as constitutional amendments (Rep. Joseph Cervantes’ HJR 11, House Minority Leader Tom Taylor’s HJR 16, and Rep. Kiki Saavedra’s HJR 17). All three have passed the House unanimously.
But Sanchez told Doland he didn’t recall the 2002 report (he later read it and made the comments about it to other media), and he thinks lawmakers need to look at PRC reform “more carefully than in a 30-day session.”
In other words, he wants the Legislature to go back and redo the very thing it – and he – did a decade ago. Ten years and scandal after scandal after scandal after scandal later, he wants to start over again.
That’s outrageous. It’s preposterous. It’s laughable.
The importance of qualifications
The majority leader’s skepticism about increasing qualifications is common among anti-reformers and is shared by Republican Commissioner Ben Hall. The fact that Sanchez and Hall, who has had his own problems (here and here), share skepticism about anything makes me chuckle.
Sanchez’s position is also laughable because he has been at the forefront of questioning whether Hanna Skandera should be confirmed as public education secretary, saying because she has never been a teacher she may not meet the constitutional requirement of being a “qualified, experienced educator.” Does he think government officials should be required to meet certain qualifications or not?
Finally, the answer to the underlying question – would having better-qualified commissioners help our scandal-plagued PRC – seems obvious to me.
The PRC regulates all sort of complicated industries. It’s arguably the most powerful regulatory board of its kind in any state in America. We ask commissioners to approve potentially lucrative regulatory changes. They make those decisions in part based lots of technical information tossed at them by companies that stand to profit, and who may also be wining and dining them and financing their campaigns.
In other words, make friends with the guy who has a vote but doesn’t know what he’s doing. He won’t understand what you’re asking him for, but if you’re his friend he’ll trust you and do what you ask.
It would help to have people on the commission who have the knowledge, experience or educational background that comes from having a college degree or five years of relevant experience, as Cervantes has proposed and members of the House unanimously agreed was a good idea. It would help to have people who have shown the discipline to earn that degree or experience on the commission.
Of course that doesn’t mean that those who have degrees “can’t mess up.” Sanchez’s question deflects attention from the real issue. For technical jobs like these, having some basic qualifications would help in the same way that being a lawyer helps the attorney general do his job (we do require that our AG be a lawyer).
Michael Sanchez stands in the way
The reality is that the PRC is the ultimate mid-ballot race that gets no attention. Voters tend to know who’s running for president, governor, and maybe U.S. Senate and House. Many know their local county commission and legislative candidates. In between are races for seats on a regulatory board no one notices.
That’s why Jerome Block Jr. got elected even though anyone who was paying attention should have known he had probably committed felony crimes before they voted for him. As I’ve written, inattention was also a big factor in Hall’s 2010 victory.
Voters agreed in 1996 to create an uber-powerful regulatory board but have since given little thought to what it is or does. Largely because voters aren’t acting as a watchdog, other structural reforms must be put in place to help the PRC function better. Hence, the proposed constitutional amendments.
Voters only get that chance to implement such reforms if the Legislature gives it to them. The entire House of Representatives has agreed to do just that.
I have to believe the Senate would also vote to present voters with that opportunity, if given the chance.
And all that stands in the way of that happening is Michael Sanchez.
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