Call for PRC Chair resignation after audit finds “pervasive abuse of taxpayer resources”

By Matthew Reichbach

An audit released by State Auditor Hector Balderas today found “pervasive abuse of taxpayer resources” at the Public Regulations Commission — well beyond disgraced former PRC commissioner Jerome Block Jr. Included is PRC Chairman Patrick Lyons, prompting State Auditor Hector Balderas to call for Lyons’ resignation.

“Tips we’ve received indicate that Commission employees are scared to come forward with information they may have,” Balderas said in a press release. “The tone of intimidation trickles down from the top.”

“Chairman Lyons is part of the problem, and he should reimburse the taxpayers and resign his position,” Balderas said in the release.

According to the press release, Lyons drove a truck purchased with federal funds “for approximately 65 days in violation of a federal pipeline safety program.”

One of the problems found in the special audit was abuse of gas cards. KOB-TV found that Jerome Block Jr. spent around $4,000 on gas using a state gas card between January to May of 2011, including instances of multiple fill ups within the same hour.

The audit found that 26 different persons lacked “documentation in the vehicle travel log supporting a vehicle was driven on the day a fuel purchase was completed” for a total of 1,056 times.

And there were 95 non-fuel transactions that were not supported by a receipt between 24 people totaling $2,143.

Other violations included 3 out of state trips using government vehicles without an approved waiver and purchasing premium gasoline which violates state regulations.

The special audit was conducted by Atkinson and Co., Ltd., and can be downloaded from the website of the State Auditor.

PRC redistricting bill passes key committee, but not without controversy

By Matthew Reichbach

A committee substitute to a bill to redistrict the Public Regulations Committee cleared the House Voters and Elections Committee and moved on to the House Judiciary Committee — but not without some controversy. Republicans on the committee were not happy with the amount of time they were given to look over the maps.

Rep. Nate Gentry (R-Albuquerque) told Clearly New Mexico in a short interview that the actions showed that Democrats are “trying to jam bills through now.”

“It was sprung on us when we got in committee and we had a full 55 minutes to analyze a bill with very complex constitutional issues,” Gentry told Clearly New Mexico. “Most committee chairmen require a day in advance for committee substitutes and for good reason.”

Mary Helen Garcia (D-Las Cruces) said that this was the first that Democrats had seen of the committee substitute as well.

The legislation in question is HB 15, a bill to redistrict the Public Regulations Commission. The initial bill was one of the concept maps brought over from the interim committee. The committee substitute made some changes to the bill that Republicans said they did not have enough time to analyze.

Speaker of the House Ben Lujan (D-Nambe) suggested that the committee vote to pass the committee substitute. Floor Majority Leader Ken Martinez, (D-Grants), said he would defer to the will of the committee on whether or not to pass the bill along.

The committee substitute for HB15 now heads over to the House Judiciary Committee where Gentry will get another chance to look at the bill.

The committee heard two other bills but voted to table both. One was another PRC map, HB 36, carried by Rep. Ray Begaye (D-Shiprock). The other was HB 37 a state House redistricting map by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D-Albuquerque), which would have taken seats from rural areas to compensate for the growth in the Albuquerque metro west of the Rio Grande.

Showdown at the PRC: Consumers win as PNM’s rate increase is slashed

By J. Daniel

By any standard, it was a stunning upset. PNM lost yesterday and New Mexico consumers won.

As the state’s largest electric utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) had grown accustomed to having its way with the 5-member elected body charged with regulating it — the Public Regulation Commission. After two straight years of getting its rate increase requests granted, this year PNM and its army of lawyers and lobbyists decided to go for a three-peat in 2011 — initially asking for a whopping $165 million rate hike.

After months of hearings, including closed-door negotiations from which consumer advocates were excluded, that figure got bumped down to a base rate of $85 million. However, a number of  consumer charges were tacked on in addition to the base rate — masked as extra “riders” to the so-called “stipulated agreement.”

So with customary sign-off by the lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, it looked like smooth sailing for PNM’s third straight rate hike. Soon it would be sending out bills to its residential customers with a hefty new increase tacked on.

But Thursday was decision day, and despite all the behind the scenes machinations of the lawyers, PNM ran into a brick wall of unprecedented customer resistance leading up to the PRC hearing in Santa Fe.

“We received hundreds of calls,” was the refrain voiced by at least two of the Commissioners as they prepared to cast their deciding votes.

And then in quick succession, the PRC rejected three motions favored by PNM (one even failing for lack of a second on a motion by Patrick Lyons). It then voted 3 to 2 and passed a framework put together by Commissioner Jason Marks that granted PNM a $72 million rate increase.

Marks explained it this way:

“It’s important that the company only gets what’s fair for PNM and its customers… We can’t afford to give the company the benefit of the doubt. We’ve got to sharpen our pencils. We’ve got to make sure we’re not asking a ratepayer to pay a dollar more than the law requires.”

As a regulated utility monopoly, PNM has a statutory right from the our legislature to make a profit.  The Commission must adhere to that law.  The true question before the Commission was how much exactly to award.

A press release issued by Prosperity Works, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, lauded the PRC’s decision:

“Today the Public Regulation Commission was presented with four options to address PNM’s rate increase request. While all four options included rate increases, the one that passed today will have the smallest impact on consumers,” said Carmela Starce, lead council for Prosperity Works.  “We wish to thank Commissioners (Jason) Marks, (Jerome) Block and (Theresa Becenti) Aguilar for their vote on behalf of New Mexico’s consumers.”

Starce pointed out, “Let me be clear, one of the commissioners who voted against the Marks plan did so – not because he was against a rate increase but because he favored the plan that would have cost New Mexicans the most money and put it right into PNM’s pocket.  Today, three commissioners did the best they could with what was before them.  They should be applauded for working on behalf of New Mexicans to make sure that PNM didn’t get a penny more that it could justify.”

Starce estimated that the PRC’s action today will save consumers at least $60 million over the next five years.

PNM has ten days in which to appeal the decision.

More Clearly NM coverage of the PNM rate hike fight here.

(Many thanks to Charlotte Chinana, who contributed to this report.)

Down Low Dealings at PNM Regarding Rate Hikes

By Tracy Dingmann

Six local watchdog groups have filed statements in opposition to PNM’s plan to raise rates for electric service in New Mexico, saying the company negotiated the rate hikes in secret and without input from customers and other parties opposed to the rate hike.

The state’s largest electric utility had announced recently that it would seek a rate hike of as much as 25 percent on residential customers.

Subsequently, executives from PNM, along with members of the Public Regulation Commission and staffers from the office of the New Mexico Attorney General carried out negotiations regarding the rate hike and came up with a figure that appeared much lower.

Now representatives from six citizen’s advocacy groups say the groups negotiated the hike behind closed doors and did not take input from the people who will most be affected – the customers. The groups also say the negotiated agreement contains measures that will make it very easy for PNM to charge customers more again in a few short years.

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Public Will Get Chance to be Heard on PNM’s Proposed 25% Residential Rate Hike

by Tracy Dingmann

Are you ready to pay 25 percent more for the same electric service?

Less than a year after two consecutive rate increases, the Public Service Company of New Mexico is planning to ask the Public Regulation Commission for permission to approve a whopping 25% rate hike for residential customers.

The electric company says it needs the money, despite reporting profits of nearly $150 million and paying dividends to shareholders in excess of 30% in 2009.

If regulators cave to what PNM wants, they will have raised PNM’s rates by 50% in just three years.

And don’t forget that while PNM’s top execs take home six-figure bonuses, the electric company has slashed its workforce by 15%.

When will it stop?

If the PRC rolls over to PNM’s increase request once again, what incentive will PNM have to exercise fiscal responsibility or good corporate citizenship?

Any time it under-budgets, or is fined for pollution violations, or manages its business poorly, it won’t be PNM’s shareholders or execs that feel the consequences. PNM can simply raise rates and pass its mistakes, bad management, and poor judgment on to PNM’s customers – who are held hostage to PNM’s profiteering.

In these economic hard times, when so many New Mexican households are struggling simply to keep their homes and put food on the table, a 25% electric rate increase is an outrage and an insult. It’s already happened twice in the last three years. Tell the PRC that under no circumstances can it happen again!

You’ll get you chance to speak up tomorrow (Wednesday, January 26) at 2 and 6 p.m. at the African American Performing Arts Center and Exhibit Hall, 310 San Pedro NE at Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Yes! Another PNM Rate Increase

Did you catch the sarcasm? Good. Because I know my utility bills are already taking up an increasingly large chunk of my earned dollars this year.

Yes, PNM has been on quite the rate-raising roll. And guess what – all of us PNM customers are about to get another increase – this time to pay for a $300,000 audit the company was required to undergo last year.

I read about the audit in this Saturday’s Albuquerque Journal in an article called “Taking a Hard Look.”

The story talks about how last year the NM Public Regulation Commission forced PNM to perform an audit in response to PNM’s request to implement a fuel adjustment clause.

What’s a fuel adjustment clause? Well, according to the story, it’s a move that “gives utility companies a mechanism to cope with fluctuations in the costs of fuel for generating power by passing them on to customers.”(emphasis mine).

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