Think New Mexico, a reform-minded non-profit, and State Rep. Tom Taylor, R-San Juan, put together House Bill 47, which sets out increased qualifications for Public Regulation Commissioners, guided it through committees, and watched it pass unanimously today in the house.
HB 47 takes a flexible approach to qualifications for PRC candidates: “at least twelve years of professional experience or higher education resulting in a degree or degrees, or both.” Taylor’s bill gives examples of related fields and defines professional experience.
State Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, and State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-San Juan, offered a different vision of PRC qualifications, primarily in Senate Bill 8. But senate committees kept revising their bills. Last night Senate Judiciary unanimously passed a relatively-late substitute.
The education and experience that Keller’s bill, SB 8, would require of PRC candidates had grown somewhat complicated by last week. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, said the bill “had a great deal of ambiguity and subjective criteria.”
State Sen. Bill Payne, R-Bernalillo, focused last night on the “people who should be running for PRC commissioners.” State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, had also suggested to Keller that he focus on professional experience and licensure, rather than education.
Payne prevailed with a “simple” plan—three qualifications for PRC commissioners: three years leading a relevant governmental department, relevant senior management experience for five years, or licensure in one of three fields regulated by the PRC (law, accounting, and engineering).
Payne’s proposal calls for PRC candidates who have worked in “utilities, transportation or construction” as a “head, deputy head or division director of a state or local government department.” But beyond pipelines, the PRC website says little about construction.
The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates New Mexico has about 9,000 accountants, 6,000 lawyers, and 13,000 engineers. Within these groups, only about 1% of New Mexicans would have the qualifications to run for the PRC.
“We are concerned that the definition of who is qualified is too narrow and would exclude many capable New Mexicans,” Fred Nathan of Think New Mexico tells the Santa Fe Reporter. “We hope to work with the sponsor.”
Taylor’s bill may still run into problems. The Secretary of State would have to process documentation, affidavits, and transcripts to determine PRC qualifications. Wirth said Senate Judiciary did not want to put the Secretary of State “in an impossible position.”
Senate Judiciary, according to Cervantes, did not want to give the Secretary of State the discretion to decide whether a candidate met “nebulous and uncertain” qualifications. Taylor’s bill says the Secretary of State “shall not conduct an investigation” into qualifications.
Taylor emphasized with SFR that his bill requires relevant experience. “Driving a taxi is not relevant,” he said. But if someone owned taxicabs, and “was before the PRC, dealing with rates,” then “those years of experience may start to qualify.”
Last week several members of Senate Judiciary predicted that PRC qualifications bills with this kind of ambiguity, or debatable definitions, would practically invite lawsuits, particularly from candidates or their supporters who wanted to challenge the credentials of another candidate.
HB 47 spells out continuing education requirements for PRC Commissioners: 80 hours the first year and 40 hours each year thereafter, from certified programs. SB 8 calls for commissioners to take ethics courses for at least two hours annually.
Keller’s bill, or more accurately, Payne’s substitute, does not contain the grandfather clause found in Taylor’s bill. The latter says anyone serving as “a commissioner on or after January 1, 2011” will automatically meet the qualifications to run for PRC.
Last November, voters approved a constitutional amendment that said “the increased qualifications provided by this 2012 amendment shall apply to public regulation commissioners elected at the general election in 2014.” But the ballot never defined or specified these increased qualifications.
Taylor and Think New Mexico addressed these issues by defining incumbency as an increased qualification. Arguably, service as a PRC commissioner affords the most relevant training. Perhaps voters will warm to incumbents and accept their coming claims of extra qualifications.