New Mexico court rejects challenge to regulatory reforms

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to a voter-approved measure to overhaul a powerful commission that oversees public utilities and determines how much customers charge for heating and cooling their homes can be asked.

The court made its decision after hearing oral arguments in a case about whether voters understood they were giving up their right to elect members of the Public Regulation Commission when they passed the constitutional amendment in Year 2020 approved.

The change turns the commission into a three-person body appointed by the governor with approval from the state senate. An independent nominating committee is to review candidates before the governor selects appointments.

The petition was filed earlier this year on behalf of Indigenous Lifeways, the New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute and the Three Sisters Collective. The nonprofit groups work on environmental restoration projects on Native American lands in northwestern New Mexico.

Sarah Shore, an Albuquerque attorney representing the groups, told the court that the issue deserves special scrutiny because the amendment removes the right of New Mexicans to choose representation on the commission.

“This case represents a unique circumstance where there is a real risk of abuse of power,” she said. “There is a transfer away from the people who reserve rights in their own constitution to the political branches. This is not a circumstance in which the legislature is proposing to change rights that people have already delegated.”

Prosecutors and the governor’s office argued that the groups had waited too long to voice their concerns and that the timing for such a challenge would have been when the measure was being debated and electoral language was being worked out.

Shore argued that the amendment should be scrapped from the state constitution because it illegally combined multiple reforms into one voting issue for voters to decide. She said most voters are neither lawyers nor legislators and have been misled as the voting measure does not address the impact on the public’s right to elect commissioners.

The judges said they did not believe the measure amounted to logrolling and would set out the reasons for their decision in an upcoming written opinion.

The measure was approved by 56% of voters in 2020, with proponents arguing that establishing an independent nominating committee would enhance the regulatory body’s professionalism and remove membership from the political process.

However, opponents have said politics would still be at play as commissioners would serve at the governor’s discretion. Currently, Democrats hold the office of governor, control the state Supreme Court and control the majority of the legislature.

In recent years, the New Mexico Supreme Court has overturned PRC rulings related to the state’s energy transition law and a proposed merger involving New Mexico’s largest electric utility.

Legislative analysts had previously stated, in laying out arguments for and against the voting measure, that the change would not change how the commission actually works and there were no guarantees that lawmakers would adequately fund the agency.

Over the years there have been concerns about a lack of money to attract and retain a professional staff of engineers, accountants, lawyers and others to draft regulations and advise commissioners on complicated cases ranging from customer tariffs to future development renewable energy rich state.