Long before Jerome Block Jr.'s third arrest for violating the conditions of his drug court program, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission had problems. In 2007, former Commissioner David King was convicted of sexually harassing his assistant; in 2008, Block and his father, Jerome Block Sr., faced allegations of election violations; in 2009, former Commissioner Carol Sloan attacked a rival with a rock.
But according to Bruce Throne, a lawyer with more than 30 years' experience before the PRC, the juicy scandals "distract from deeper problems." Take the PRC's approval, in December 2009, of a hefty 25 percent average rate hike for Blue Cross Blue Shield—the company's sixth approved increase in six years, even as its cash reserves swelled from $4.3 billion to $6.7 billion.
To Throne, the PRC's problems are manifold. Tasked with regulating everything from business licenses to electric utilities, health insurance companies, telecom giants, ambulances and railroads, the body's five elected commissioners seem to constantly be playing catch-up on big, convoluted cases.
"This is not a question of, 'Are people intelligent?' This job is very complex and requires specialized training and experience," Throne says. By contrast, regulated entities (like Blue Cross Blue Shield) employ paid staffers to argue their cases before the PRC, whether they're about rate increases or relaxed renewable energy requirements.
"They have a perfect right to do that, but they have resources to bear that way exceed anybody else's resources, including the commission's," Throne says. This system also leaves small businesses at a disadvantage, especially with the PRC's lengthy appeals process.
"For the most part, small business people don't participate over at the PRC because they don't have the time or the money," Throne says.
So what to do? Several proposals in a variety of categories are slated to go before the state Legislature. In addition, the PRC's own internal management study offers some solutions. Throne, for his part, advocates a leaner diet of responsibility, appointed commissioners vetted by a nonpartisan body and requiring real expertise in the relevant fields.
"The best way the public gets protected is by having experienced people who understand a lot of the intricacies and at least can ask the right questions," Throne says. "At the end of the day, we have to trust that experienced people will adequately do their jobs."