Legislators expected to debate PRC reform

Trip Jennings

Two years from now, will the state Public Regulation Commission look the same?

New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers will likely answer that question in this year’s 30-day legislative session, which starts Tuesday.

While an extensive makeover of the commission is not a sure bet, it is a distinct possibility as legislators grapple with the fallout from last fall’s resignation and guilty plea to felony charges by former Public Regulation Commission member Jerome Block Jr. Block’s admission to fraudulently using a state-issued gasoline card and embezzlement, among other things, left another black mark on an agency already known for its share of scandals since coming into being in 1999.

And if cryptic remarks Block made publicly can be believed, there’s a question of possible scandals to come. Block, who admitted to an addiction to prescription medicines, suggested drug use at the regulatory agency did not end with him.

The scandals are enough to frustrate more than a few legislators.

“We’ve had one mess after another at that commission,” said House Minority Leader Thomas Taylor, R-Farmington, who plans on sponsoring one of the pieces of reform legislation during the session.

“The public has had a major reaction to the way it is currently structured,” agreed Santa Fe Democrat Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela.

Among the questions lawmakers likely are to confront during the legislative session are:

— Should Public Regulation Commission members meet certain minimum qualifications, such as a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or five years of experience in law, engineering, economics or accounting?

— Should the Insurance Division, which is currently part of the PRC, become a standalone agency?

— Would transferring the state fire marshal to the Homeland Security Department make for a better fit?

— Should the PRC’s corporation reporting division be moved to the Secretary of State’s Office?

— And should the PRC continue to regulate railroad crossings or should the state Department of Transportation take over that responsibility?

Spinning off several of the agency’s functions is fine with Commission member Jason Marks.

Currently, the PRC is responsible for setting rules and rates for utilities, registering corporations, conducting fire inspections and acting as the arbiter for health insurance premium rates, among other things.

“We focus on our core skill sets and we’ll do better,” he said.

Meanwhile, Taylor already is trying to make the case for commission members to have minimum qualifications. The elected commission’s regulation of highly complex industries such as utilities makes that a must, he said.

“The regulation of utility, electric and natural gas, communication companies, is highly technical,” Taylor said. “It is important that we have qualified people.”

Public Regulation Commission members themselves are open to change. Last week, the five-member Public Regulation Commission reviewed an in-house management study that proposed several changes, which they largely supported.

The suggestions included shrinking the number of political hires at the agency and moving railroad regulation out from under the commission to the state Transportation Department. It also recommended requiring division directors to undergo management training and ethics training for all commission members and staff members who are exempt from personnel rules for hiring and firing.

Some of the changes, such as training and decreasing the number of political hires, could be accomplished through administrative rules, officials said.

As of late 2010, the agency had around 240 employees, 27 of whom were exempt, or political hires.

Exempt employees can be hired without a competitive process and fired at will.

The management study proposed transferring many of the agency’s division directors into the classified system. Currently, most are exempt employees, officials said. Classified workers go through a competitive hiring process and can only be terminated for cause after a lengthy process.

Fred Nathan of Think New Mexico lauded the proposed changes.

“If adopted, it would be transformative,” Nathan said of the management study. “It’s both comprehensive and courageous.”

Think New Mexico plays a large role in the push for PRC reform. The think tank published a report this fall recommending many of the changes state lawmakers will consider during the session.

Think New Mexico is keen to keep up the momentum from this fall, when Block resigned amid scandal.

Its staff spent part of last week lobbying commission members to endorse some of the changes leading into the session. Think New Mexico plans to continue applying pressure by lobbying lawmakers throughout the session.

Changing the commission would not be a quick fix, however. Because it was set up in the state constitution, any substantive change would require an amendment to the constitution. That means the New Mexico Legislature would have to pass a joint resolution articulating the changes, which then would go before voters in the 2012 election.

The resolution, if passed, would go directly to the voters, bypassing Gov. Susana Martinez who must sign most legislation to become law.

Critics of the commission have much to point to when demanding reform.

Block is the second member of the commission to resign in under two years because of a felony conviction. Commissioner Carol Sloan of Gallup stepped down in April 2010 after a conviction for battery.

And those are only the most recent scandals. In 2007, a Santa Fe jury awarded more than $840,000 in damages to a former employee who accused then-commissioner David King of sexually harassing her.