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Time to restructure

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Stopping the sorry saga of the PRC

By Sherry Robinson

As Jerome Block Jr. joins the roster of bad boys and girls forced to leave the state’s Public Regulation Commission, let’s look back and see how we got here.
In 1996 voters passed a constitutional amendment to combine the State Corporation Commission, whose three members were elected on a statewide basis, and the Public Utility Commission, whose three members were appointed.
It would be replaced by the Public Regulation Commission, whose five members would be elected by district.
This super-agency would regulate utilities, phone companies, water and sewer systems, insurance, pipelines, and tow-truck operators.
Supporters said it was good government; because they were elected, commissioners would be directly accountable to the public. Opponents feared concentrating too much power in too few hands.
Few people, including most legislators, knew anything about this innocuous-sounding proposal sitting at the bottom of the ballot.
“It got through the committees of the House at 3 in the morning on the last day of the session. In my conversations with several senators, they didn’t even know they voted on that sucker,” said Corporations Commissioner and future PRC member Jerome Block Sr., who knew something about suckers.
House Speaker Raymond Sanchez tried to kill the bill.
“This group will control everything from the signals being beamed from satellites to taxicabs. It is going to be way too powerful and much too subject to outside influences,” said a man well acquainted with power.
Corporation Commissioner Eric Serna said, “The public needs to understand the power this amendment bestows on five individuals. It’s fine if they’re all upstanding individuals, but life sometimes is not that perfect.”
Serna himself would exhibit a few imperfections before exiting state employment.
What nobody foresaw was how difficult it would be to get rid of those “imperfect” individuals.
Remember E. Shirley Baca and her stash of pot?
We soon regretted this change, and we haven’t stopped regretting it.
So it was encouraging to see the legislative Government Restructuring Task Force tackle the PRC on its mission to streamline government. In January, Sen. Linda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, introduced a resolution to amend the Constitution to remove the PRC as a constitutionally created agency; without that constitutional umbrella, the PRC’s powers and duties would be defined by law and its commissioners appointed by the governor.  
“New Mexico’s PRC functions are controversial, I think, due to the fact that too many functions were given to the PRC,” said Lovejoy, who was a commissioner from 1999 to 2006.
She wanted to return the commission to its original focus on utilities and spin other regulatory duties out to other departments.
Despite support from business groups, the measure was tabled in committee. Republicans opposed it, and many legislators didn’t understand it.
With no PRC, then what? They didn’t realize a companion bill laid out the restructuring. Commissioner Pat Lyons lobbied against it.
“Sadly, it’s human nature that people want to save their positions and protect their turf. This had nothing to do with sitting commissioners. This was only to make the commission more transparent, more efficient,” Lovejoy said afterward.
During the recent special session, the governor resuscitated a few restructuring proposals to combine the Cultural Affairs and Tourism departments, merge the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department with the Department of Public Safety, and Rolling the Department of Information Technology into the General Services Department.
Those three didn’t go anywhere, but they did indicate the governor’s interests in restructuring.
The dismal spectacle of the House forming a committee to weigh impeachment of Block the Younger, plus the $1 million set aside to do that, gave everyone pause.
Appointed commissioners could be fired at the snap of a governor’s fingers.
Both parties, it seems, are now ready to reconsider PRC restructuring.
Maybe they can work together on this issue. That would be nice, for a change.

Sherry Robinson
2011 New Mexico
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