The committee to pick the commission: Work begins on PRC nominating process

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Jun. 13—The task of finding people who can make wise decisions regarding utility services in the state will rest with a yet-to-be-named committee that needs to be equally astute.

A seven-person nominating committee, which will initiate a new selection process for members of the Public Regulation Commission, is required by state law to be in place before July 1. The committee will nominate at least five people, from whom Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will select three to serve on the commission beginning in 2023. Her appointees must be confirmed by the state Senate.

The nominating committee, which must meet for the first time before Sept. 1, will be named this month by four leaders of the New Mexico Legislature and three administrators in the executive branch, including Lujan Grisham.

New Mexico voters decided in 2020 to overhaul the commission, changing it from a five-member elected panel to three members appointed by the governor, following a series of controversies, including some involving commissioners who were charged with crimes.

"There's maybe a couple dozen people in the state who have a good sense" of what utility regulation involves, said Steve Michel of Santa Fe, an attorney who is doing contract work with the environmental organization Western Resource Advocates. That organization frequently offers input to the Public Regulation Commission on energy issues.

The new commission will assume its work as renewable energy, such as solar and wind, become vital to generating electricity. It might also face decisions about whether Public Service Company of New Mexico should be allowed to merge with two other power companies and about how PNM goes about removing itself from two coal-fueled power plants in northwestern New Mexico.

Members of the PRC are paid $90,000 a year, an amount some worry won't attract excellence. An effort to increase that to $140,000 failed in the Legislature this year.

Along with Lujan Grisham, who is expected by law to name a Native American to the nominating committee, those making appointments are House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe; Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque; Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen; House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia; Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst; and Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes.

Baca has named former state Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, the PRC said. Baldonado, a Republican real estate broker from Los Lunas, was the only nominee publicly named so far.

Baldonado said Friday it's important for the committee to have someone experienced in government. Serving on the committee is "a good way to stay plugged in," he said. "I'm no expert on PRC matters, but definitely it crosses your plate quite a bit" in the Legislature.

Townsend said he's still studying the matter.

"I've had several people call that are interested," he said. "I'm down to a short list."

Townsend said he wants to name a smart person with rich life experience. He has met with a couple of people who work for or represent energy companies and they have proposed some names, he added, but none has a competitive edge.

"There will be some interviews and some conversations," he said. "And we'll go from there."

Under state law, the unpaid nominating committee members must have knowledge about utility regulation and can't be employed by a utility company or have an interest in being on the PRC.

Egolf said in a statement he is "carefully considering who he will appoint," while Keyes said she hasn't chosen anyone yet.

Mariel Nanasi, head of the nonprofit New Energy Economy of Santa Fe, which often is involved in cases before the PRC, said it's vital members of the nominating committee understand what utility regulation is about and that they be "visionaries" who recognize the importance of renewable energy.

Nanasi generally is at odds with PNM, the state's biggest electric utility company, in PRC cases.

It will be clear from the selection of the nominating committee, she said, if the new selection process will give a "free pass" to utility companies or will consider the economic, environmental and public interest.

"If there's nobody who has the interests that I have defended on that committee, we're going to be in big trouble," Nanasi said.

She hasn't spoken with anyone about possibly being named to the nominating committee. "If I was asked, I would probably accept that responsibility," she said.

But Nanasi doubts she will be appointed. "I know too much," she said. "I know how they operate."

Another Santa Fe-based official with Western Resource Advocates, Pat O'Connell, worked for PNM before he moved to the environmental group. O'Connell said he is "not trying to be on the nominating committee."

As for being named to the PRC, he said, "If I apply, you'll know it. But I don't want to pre-judge that or get ahead of the process."