In 1996, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment that abolished the State Corporation and Public Utility Commissions and replaced these agencies with the Public Regulation Commission.
There's every reason to believe voters thought, by doing so, they might break the legacy of cronyism and corruption that plagued these predecessor agencies.
Various lawmakers and advocates have continued in the more than a decade since to try to protect consumers by creating public financing for PRC commissioners and seeking to eliminate industry influence in the rate- and rule-making of the five-member elected body.
Anyone with even a passing recognition of the current economic situation in this country realizes the importance of an agency like the PRC. These five regulators are, in many cases, the only representation citizens get with utilities and corporations. The PRC has broad authority: It regulates telecoms, electric utilities, co-ops, pipeline safety, transportation and more.
As costs rise and the economy remains uncertain, now, more than ever, New Mexicans deserve regulators who will work hard to protect their interests.
Rick Lass is that person. Lass questions the recent 17 percent rate increase requested by Public Service Company of New Mexico, an increase that follows on the heels of a separate 15 percent increase. He has pledged opposition to the hike, unless it can be proven that, without it, PNM will go out of business (rather than be unable to pay executives exorbitant salaries). He is dedicated to pushing along the state's commitment to renewable energy and ensuring rural co-ops are able to meet the standards set by the state.
In his race, Lass has showed up to debates and interviews, answered every questionnaire and pledged to work tirelessly to earn the $90,000 PRC commissioner salary. He is aware of the need of the PRC to work harder at educating consumers, expresses dissatisfaction at the organization's current constituent services and plans to hold town halls on issues impacting New Mexicans.
And then there is Lass' opponent: Jerome Block Jr.
Block has made little attempt to discuss the issues. As of press time, one public forum featuring both candidates is planned—at a cost of $25 to attend.
Block failed to respond to surveys from groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club, and has been largely unavailable to the press.
Most disturbing of all, as of press time, Block is still being investigated by the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general for what could potentially be fourth-degree felony violations of the Voter Action Act.
Block lied to numerous media outlets and said he spent $2,500 of taxpayer money to pay a band called Wyld Country to play a campaign event, which the Las Vegas Optic revealed the band never actually played. (Wyld Country, mind you, is a band in which the San Miguel county clerk is a member. That clerk also was paid by Block's campaign. Oh, and that county is the only one Block won in the primary.)
The false expenditure, so far, is the most serious problem with the series of scandals we've taken to calling "Blockgate."
You can read the 40-odd stories and blog posts that chronicle Block's poor fitness for public office at sfreporter.com and check for breaking news on swingstateofmind.com. The stories begin with Dave Maass' June 25 article, "Failure to Appear," which revealed that Block lied about the circumstance of a previous DWI arrest and failed to disclose other incidents in his criminal and civil legal history.
And yet, there is every reason to believe Block can win this election; it even seems likely. Why? Because he's a Democrat and Rick Lass is a Green.
It borders on mind-boggling to us that voters would place party loyalty above loyalty to their own interests. Just last week, former state Sen. Manny Aragon pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud. Former State Treasurer Robert Vigil was convicted of attempted extortion. These were people—Democrats—who were entrusted by the public to look after the public's interests. It's bad enough Block avoided or ignored most public outlets for discussion of the issues pertaining to his race. But add to that, this: Jerome Block Jr. is already under investigation for possibly breaking the law and he hasn't even been elected yet.
And if that wasn't enough—and frankly, it really, really is—let's not forget that Block Jr.'s father, Jerome Block Sr., was a commissioner for both the Public Regulation and State Corporation Commissions. Right now, he's employed by Mescalero Apache Telecom, which, yes, has business before the PRC. He is clearly involved in his son's campaign, and the visibility and influence of the Block name is yet another reason Jr. has a good chance of winning.
Given the last eight years, it's understandable Democrats hope for sweeping victories. It's understandable some Dems associate the Greens with spoiling elections and delivering George W Bush to the White House.
But that's not what's going on in this race. Without Rick Lass, voters wouldn't even have an option other than Jerome Block Jr.
There's also some irony here. There were six Democratic candidates in the June primary for this seat. Block Jr. won with 23 percent of the vote. If New Mexico had a mechanism for run-off elections that required any winning candidate to receive a majority of support, chances are Block Jr. would not have made the cut. The top proponent for run-off elections, the person who has worked diligently for a decade on voter-reform measures? Rick Lass. And Lass is the first to admit he would not have gotten into this race if Bruce Throne, Joe Maestas or Paul Campos had won the primary.
But they didn't. So Democrats, here's the truth: Without your support, Rick Lass will not win this race. And if he doesn't win this race, here's another truth: We're all going to lose.
Web extra: Listen to Rick Lass talk about putting partisan politics aside in this race: