Block, Lass share a forum

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The two candidates for Public Regulation Commission’s District 5 appeared on the same dais at the Hotel Santa Fe Tuesday morning for their only joint appearance of the campaign.

But at the meeting, which was held under tightly-negotiated conditions, they had to hold their fire.

The forum was sponsored by the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.

Democratic candidate Jerome Block Jr. awoke to headlines in the local press announcing that New Mexico Secretary of State Mary Herrera had imposed penalties of $21,700 in fines and compensation for his violations of campaign laws and illegal expenditures.

Allegations of misrepresentation and improperly spending $10,700 of approximately $101,000 in public funding, which have been simmering for over a month finally came to a head Monday. A scolding letter from Herrera gave Block a 10-day deadline to respond.

While the newspaper stories provided campaign literature for Block’s sole opponent, Independent candidate Rick Lass, the two were constrained by the rules of the event from making any reference to their opponent, who would be granted an extra minute for any infraction.

Except for a few indirect references, Block chose to ignore the controversy.

In summation, at the end of the forum Block listed a few examples of what he considered the “power and abuse of power of the press.” He described these in general terms of repeated misinformation and one reporter who had made and replayed “secret tapes.”

“I could go on an on,” he said. “I have too many, but I’ll stop.”

The format allowed the candidates to read prepared answers to a set of six questions they had received well in advance.

On the issue of title insurance, the two candidates took separate tacks.

Lass said he fully supported title insurance reforms that were proposed by Think New Mexico last year, calling for lowering prices or deregulating the price structure altogether. He also agreed with repealing a 1999 law that immunizes insurers from negligent or malicious practices; and third, allowing banks and lending institutions to pool their resources and secure better rates for home owners.

Block acknowledged that his employment history included a period when he worked for a title company.

“I do not have a personal opinion,” he said, but noted that deregulation was a matter for the legislature to decide. In response to the proposal by the think tank, he pointed to another study that did not find the title insurance situation in New Mexico to be disproportionate to other states in the area.

“The legislature would be given both studies and options,” he said.

The two candidates were more in agreement on a question about the 24-month time delay between when a utility files for a rate hearing and when the PRC makes a final decision on the request.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that utility companies should have to wait 24 months for results of a rate hearing,” Lass said, noting that there were a number of processes which currently took far too long for the PRC to decide.

“I would propose revamping the entire system,” he said. “Instead of proposing rate increases at random intervals determined by the utility providers, the PRC should regularly monitor our monopoly corporations.”

Block said that except for the most complex issues, he favored reducing the time frame to six months. But he read a section of the Public Utility Act that underlies the responsibilities of the Commission and alluded to aspects of the process that nothing can be done about.

For his answers, Block frequently read large sections of statute or other legal information.

On balancing industry and consumer rate impacts, Lass emphasized renewable energy sources and green-collar jobs. Block said that coal was the most economic fuel and gas the most efficient, but there were also problems with both.

“I will continue to make renewables a priority,” he said.

Lass is a graduate of St. Johns College. He manages a Santa Fe restaurant and is a long time member of the New Mexico Green Party, who has been active in a number of local campaigns and on the national level.

According to his campaign, his prospects have increased dramatically in the polls in recent weeks, but he must rely on some of the heavy majority of Democratic voters in the district to vote line-by-line, rather than by party.

“I will bring fresh ideas and new perspectives,” Lass promised. “I will strive toward greater transparency and accountability.”

After the candidates read their answers to the questions in turn, the forum came to an end. Campaign supporters surrounded Block and kept reporters at bay.

 “He is not taking any questions,” they said, as Block shortly left the hotel ballroom.

Block had refused to appear at candidate forums in which the audience is allowed to ask questions, including a League of Women Voters forum last month in Los Alamos.