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Two constitutional amendments before voters

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Items cover PRC officials, terms for elected office

New Mexico voters have two constitutional amendments to consider this election, one intended to change the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission and the other affecting the terms and start dates for elected officials not holding statewide offices.

The proposed constitutional amendments will be on the ballots of all voters, in addition to three statewide general obligation bonds for senior facilities, libraries and higher education.

In-person absentee voting, what the Chaves County Clerk’s Office also refers to as absentee in-person early voting, starts Oct. 6. The official start to early voting is Oct. 17, while Election Day is Nov. 3.

‘Professional’ commission members

Constitutional amendment 1 would change Article 11, Sections 1 and 2, of the New Mexico Constitution, which concerns the appointments and duties of New Mexico Public Regulation Commission members.

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Proponents have said that the changes will make the commission less subject to local politics and more likely to consist of knowledgeable professionals.

The amendment also would narrow the scope of the commission’s responsibility as stated in law, unless the New Mexico Legislature assigns other responsibilities.

The New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry has endorsed the amendment. In a Feb. 29 social media post, the association quoted three legislators who drafted the measure, former Rep. Pete Wirth of Santa Fe, Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, and Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque: “To do their jobs well, commissioners must have a rare combination of skills: technological expertise, legal acumen and a keen knowledge of regulatory matters. The current structure of the PRC is not delivering for New Mexicans.”

As it stands now, the Public Regulation Commission consists of five elected officials who represent specific districts within the state for staggered four-year terms.

The amendment would take effect Jan. 1, 2023, and would create a Public Regulation Commission Nominating Committee, which would recommend qualified professionals to the governor. The governor would select commissioners to be ratified by members of the New Mexico Senate.

No more than two commissioners could belong to the same political party, and the commissioners would serve staggered six-year terms, with two consecutive terms as a limit, to guard against the possibility of a single governor appointing all of the commissioners.

In terms of altering the scope of the commission’s authority, the amendment would specify in state law that the commission would have authority over public utilities. But the Legislature could request that the commission regulate other public service companies.

The 2020 New Mexico Voters Guide prepared by the Office of the Secretary of State lists some opposing viewpoints as well. Those include that appointed commissioners are less accountable to the citizens of New Mexico and that the current way of removing a commissioner is more efficient and timely than the proposed way of legislative impeachment. Another opposing argument is that changing how commissioners are chosen won’t address some of the fundamental problems found by a 2017 report, including that the commission needs a stable funding source to hire the lawyers, engineers and accountants needed to manage commission matters.

Adjusting elected officials’ terms

Constitutional Amendment 2 would change Article 20, Section 3, of the New Mexico Constitution.

It would authorize the Legislature to stagger or align terms for state, county or district offices if they thought it was necessary and it would clarify that elected officials would take office on Jan. 1 following election day. No statewide offices would be affected by the change.

One of the constitutional amendments started as a provision of a 2019 elections bill co-sponsored by Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell. (File Photo)

The changes were first enacted in 2019 as part of House Bill 407, “an election overhaul bill,” which the governor signed. Sponsors of that legislation included Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque; Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell; Sen. Roberto Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, who was a representative at the time; and former Rep. Linda Trujillo.

Eight district attorneys filed suit soon after it passed because their terms would have been extended two years until 2022 to coincide with the gubernatorial election. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in December 2019 that changes to terms of office could be made only by constitutional amendment.

According to the Voters Guide, proponents believe the changes will help officials balance out the number of positions voters are asked to decide on during various election years and will ensure that terms for similar offices are aligned with each other.

Opponents say the changes provide no clear benefit to voters and could be unfair to elected officials if their terms are shortened or elongated by the Legislature after they are elected.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

To keep up with coverage of this and other 2020 elections of local and regional interest, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/elections/.