January 31, 2023

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — New Mexico’s governor will have nine candidates to choose from as she fills a powerful regulatory commission that oversees utility tariffs and will help chart the state’s course toward greater renewable energy development.

A nominating committee voted unanimously Friday to forward the finalists’ names to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It wasn’t immediately clear how long it would take the governor to schedule her appointments.

The nominees include a senior attorney general’s office officer, a policy expert from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC, an associate dean of the University of Florida Law School and an attorney from Albuquerque who has represented several tribal communities in New Mexico.

The list of finalists for the Public Regulation Commission is the result of a months-long selection process.

“We’re really picking people here who are not only dealing with today’s problems, but also with tomorrow’s problems and tomorrow’s problems, and we don’t even know what they are,” said Bill Brancard, member of the nominating committee and an office chief of the state energy department.

Cydney Beadles, another member of the committee, said this is a crucial time for utility regulation, noting that US grid operations and energy markets are undergoing major changes

“Now more than ever, utilities need predictable regulation, and we, the government, need them as partners to spur economic growth and prosperity,” she said. “Consumers need to be able to trust that commissioners know how to ensure that utilities are not paying more than they have to in these rapidly changing conditions so that ratepayers are not paying more than they have to. The scope of the PRC’s duty is the public interest.”

A constitutional amendment approved in 2020 transforms the PRC from a five-member elected body representing districts across the state to a three-member body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the New Mexico Senate.

A coalition of nonprofit groups tried to overturn the change, saying Native American communities in particular would be disenfranchised because they would no longer have a say in who elections choose representation. The state Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit earlier this week.

Krystal Curley is the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, one of the plaintiffs in the case. She spoke before the nominations committee on Friday and held back tears.

This “gives a voice to Indigenous peoples in frontline communities who have faced the effects of colonization for over 500 years,” said Curley, who is Navajo. “For our voice to be eliminated in this way is unfair. I find it difficult to believe in the system.”

Many of the PRC’s recent decisions have had direct consequences for northwestern New Mexico, home to much of the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation. These include the recent closure of the San Juan coal-fired power plant and projects to replace lost capacity with solar and battery storage systems.

None of the recommended candidates for the Board of Supervisors are from Northwest New Mexico. Five identify themselves as Democrats.

Joseph Little is among those under consideration by the governor. From the Mescalero-Apache Nation of southern New Mexico, Little has worked with tribes on everything from water rights to utility easements.

The others are Cholla Khoury, Chief Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs in New Mexico; Amy Stein, who practiced law in Washington, DC and California before teaching in Florida; Patrick O’Connell, former resource planner for the Public Service Co. of New Mexico; former Republican State Assemblyman Brian Moore; Gabriel Aguilera, senior policy adviser to FERC; Carolyn Glick, who worked for the PRC for many years as General Counsel and Hearing Examiner; James Ellison, engineer at Sandia National Laboratories; and Arthur O’Donnell, who has served as PRC advisor.

Outgoing New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, chair of the nominating committee, acknowledged some criticism of the PRC’s overhaul but said the measure has been hotly debated and scrutinized over the course of several legislative sessions.

Egolf, who was among the Democrats pushing for the change, added that while 70% of San Juan County voters opposed the proposal, support in counties, which included the Navajo Nation, was overwhelming.

“It is important that we all remember that we are carrying out the will of the people,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was done in secret. This is not something that was done in some kind of backroom shop.”

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