In the voting booth with PRC

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By Merilee Dannemann

New Mexico is trying to fix utility and insurance regulation yet again. New Mexico’s  Public Regulation Commission (PRC), created in 1996 to replace the previous, dysfunctional State Corporations Commission and the appointed Public Utilities Commission, has suffered its own dysfunction. So now we are voting on three proposed constitutional amendments (Amendments 2, 3 and 4), intended to fix the PRC.
To be informed on these proposals, you must do more than simply read the ballot.
The ballot contains only a sentence briefly describing each amendment, taken from the title of the legislation. That leaves a lot to your imagination. If you want to know what you are voting on, here’s some homework.  
The Legislative Council Service (www.nmlegis.gov/lcs) has prepared a detailed online publication describing the PRC, explaining the amendments, offering arguments for and against, and copying the full text of all the amendments (if you can’t find the publication, use your search engine).
I recommend it. The League of Women Voters has briefer arguments in its voter guide.  
Amendment 2  proposes to require qualifications for future PRC commissioners. The presumption is that commissioners who regulate something as complex as utilities ought to have prior knowledge or experience.   
The amendment leaves it to subsequent legislation to establish the qualifications. That creates some potential for mischief. Those qualifications will have to crystal clear, or they could be subject to nasty legal disputes (“How dare they tell me I can’t run for this office!”), and there must be a decision-maker to determine whether candidates meet the qualifications.  
Amendment 3 proposes to move the corporate registration function out of the PRC and to the Secretary of State.
This is easy to endorse; it will simplify life for businesses while relieving the PRC of a responsibility unrelated to its primary function.   
The Santa Fe think tank that originally proposed these amendments, Think New Mexico, recommended moving several other divisions of the PRC to other agencies, and it’s regrettable that more of those recommendations are not in the proposed amendments.     
    Amendment 4 takes the Department of Insurance out of the PRC. The proposed way to do this is novel. It creates an Insurance Nominating Committee whose only job is to appoint the Superintendent of Insurance. Supposedly, this committee will be politically independent, will select professionally qualified individuals to serve as Superintendent, and will not gum up the works of the department with political pressure, as some PRC members allegedly have done and as Corporations Commissioners allegedly did in years past.
I’m skeptical that any politically appointed committee in New Mexico will be truly independent. As with Amendment 2, it is left to the Legislature to invent the composition of this committee and flesh out the details of how it will work, so politics will no doubt be embedded into the committee structure. But I hope for the best.
The amendment says the committee appoints a superintendent and does nothing else, leaving the superintendent completely free of accountability to anybody.  I can’t quite believe the Legislature will let that happen.    
There is certainly no harm in taking insurance out of the PRC. A knowledgeable old-timer once told me that the Corporation Commission got the Department of Insurance years ago because the state Constitution then limited the commissioners’ salary to $25,000 a year, and they could get a pay raise by serving as the Insurance Commission.
That story is unverified (the old-timer is no longer available) but so charming I must share it.
People I trust have endorsed these proposed amendments so I support them, but we must remember that the second part of this process – the enabling legislation to be enacted next year – is critical to making this work.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.