Attacked by PNM, but ready to work with it

November 27, 2018

PRC Commissioner-elect Steve Fischmann is in a unique position. Public Service Company of New Mexico, the major utility regulated by the state Public Regulation Commission, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a political action committee that produced attack ads trying unsuccessfully to stop Fischmann from unseating conservative Democrat Sandy Jones in the primary.

How will the new commissioner interact with PNM?

Fischmann said in a telephone interview that he’ll treat the electric company — and anyone else who comes before the commission — without bias and will consider the merits of each case before the commission.

“My job [will be] to adjudicate,” he said. “I hope they understand that I’ll be very fair. We’ll all be pros. I want to see consumers get the best deal possible while keeping utilities financially healthy.”

The commissioner-elect said that shortly after the primary he met with senior management from the company to “clear the air.” He said the meeting was cordial.

“We don’t have to be enemies,” Fischmann said.

He declined to name the PNM officials who came to the meeting.

A PNM spokesman said he couldn’t comment on that meeting with Fischmann or give an opinion about how the future relationship between the company and the new commissioner it opposed.

But Carla Sonntag, executive director of the New Mexico Utility Shareholders Alliance, said shareholders were concerned about statements on Fischmann’s campaign website. On the homepage of his site is a message saying, “Consumers First. Lowest Rates, Healthy Utilities.”

“Sometimes these two things contradict each other,” Sonntag said. “The statute says that the commission’s job is balancing the interests of the shareholders and the public.”

Fischmann said in the interview that he wants consumers to get the best deal while utilities remain financially healthy.

Sonntag stressed that the alliance did not endorse anyone in the race or make any contributions to any PAC or any candidate.

Before the June primary, a PAC called New Mexicans for Progress took $440,000 in contributions from PNM Resources Inc. The vast majority of that money — nearly $338,000 — was spent on advertising and mailers produced by McCleskey Media Strategies. That is the firm of Jay McCleskey, political consultant of outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. McCleskey produced ads in favor of incumbent commissioners up for re-election and against their challengers.

A PNM spokesman in June told The New Mexican that “PNM Resources is supporting New Mexicans for Progress to ensure that voters have the facts regarding key energy and economic issues that will impact our customers and the state as a whole.”

Fischmann is one of three new commissioners who will take office in January.

In the district that includes northwestern New Mexico and part of Albuquerque, Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, a former PRC member from Albuquerque, defeated incumbent Lynda Lovejoy of Crownpoint in the Democratic primary. While New Mexicans for Progress supported Lovejoy, the PAC bitterly opposed her other challenger, Janene Yazzie. It didn’t attack Becenti-Aguilar.

In a district that includes the entire east side of the state, Republican Jeff Byrd of Clovis won the general election to replace outgoing Commissioner Patrick Lyons of Cuervo. Byrd will be the only Republican on the commission.

Positions held by Valerie Espinoza of Santa Fe and Cynthia Hall of Albuquerque were not up for election this year.

Fischmann said he believes there needs to be some process changes to make sure regulators are provided enough information to make informed decisions.

When utilities file rate-increase requests or other cases before the commission, he said, the body does not require enough information.

“There’s no requirement to provide information to compare what they’re proposing to alternatives,” he said. “We need to solicit information from more sources so we can look at the technology and the state of [energy] markets. And we need to out all that information on our website so the public can see it.”

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