U.S. Markets closed

NM voters go along with PRC revamp, approve bonds

Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- One of the New Mexico's most powerful, highest paid and scandal-plagued commissions will have a little less power now that voters have approved a set of constitutional amendments aimed at reforming the Public Regulation Commission.

An amendment allowing the state Legislature to set minimum qualifications for PRC candidates was approved by an overwhelming majority late Tuesday.

The other two proposals were decided Wednesday by narrower margins. Under those measures, an independent superintendent position will be created to take on the PRC's duties of regulating insurance companies, and the commission's duties of chartering corporations will be transferred to the secretary of state's office.

Supporters contend the changes will make the commission more efficient and ensure that elected regulators are better prepared for the complex utility and telecommunications issues they must decide.

The five-member panel regulates utilities, insurance companies, transportation companies, and transmission and pipeline companies.

Fred Nathan, executive director of the Santa Fe-based think tank Think New Mexico, which advocated for the amendments, said late Tuesday that the outcome reflected a strong public desire for reform, given that no money was spent on get-out-the-vote efforts or other advertising in support of the measures.

"It's important to understand that PRC commissioners have a very technical job where they have to understand complex legal, accounting and engineering concepts, and it's time that we have both professional and educational requirements for this position," Nathan said.

New Mexico voters on Tuesday also approved more than $140 million in bonds to support libraries, higher education and senior centers. More than four-fifths of the bonds will be earmarked for improvements at colleges and universities around the state.

Officials at the University of New Mexico have said growing enrollment has placed pressure on existing classroom and laboratory space. They pointed to the chemistry department, which hasn't seen a major renovation in four decades.

Other schools that stand to benefit include New Mexico State University, Western New Mexico University, the New Mexico Military Institute and the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic institute.

Voters also approved two other constitutional amendments — one that will increase the membership of the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates alleged misconduct by judges, and another that will establish the Public Defenders Department as an independent state agency.

As for the Public Regulation Commission, three of its members supported the amendments, including Commissioner Doug Howe, who was appointed to the District 3 seat after former Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. pleaded guilty to felonies, including identity theft and fraudulent use of a state-issued credit card for about $8,000 in improper gasoline purchases when he served on the PRC. Block also pleaded guilty to embezzlement and violating campaign finance laws during his 2008 campaign.

The Block scandal, which came on the heels of two other scandals involving PRC commissioners in recent years, prompted the Legislature to seek the amendments.

The most popular of the amendments was the one aimed at raising the bar for commission candidates. Unofficial results show it was approved by more than 80 percent of voters.

Commissioners are paid $90,000 a year. Currently, a candidate needs only to be 18, a New Mexico resident for at least one year and have no felony convictions.

Think New Mexico has suggested requiring a college degree or several years of professional experience in certain areas, such as law or economics. However, some state lawmakers question whether additional requirements would actually protect the commission from another scandal.