[Editor's Note: Notes from this forum were taken from recordings, as this author had a conflict and was unable to attend. Sometimes, it was hard to understand what the moderator and candidates were saying.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
The two Democratic Party candidates for the New Mexico Public Regulations Commission District 5, Stephen Fischmann and incumbent Sandy Jones, faced off in a forum and answered questions from the audience and from The Silver City Daily Press and Independent, which sponsored the event at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center.
Daily Press publisher Nickolas Seibel moderated the forum. And said that the candidate that answered a question first, could come back and rebut what the opponent said. "But only one time for each question." Each candidate took advantage of the rebuttal on almost every question.
Stephen Fischmann opening statement: I'm running for Public Relations Commission because from my experience it isn't working the way it should be, in my opinion. I moved to New Mexico in 2004 from California. I love it here. There's a kind of freedom here you don't have in more populated places. I've been working on energy issues since 2005. Then I went into the state Senate for four year and worked on the Conservation Committee. Also, I've been chair of the science and technology committee.
After my stint in the Senate, I was an advocate on rate increases. What I saw was disappointing with El Paso Electric. I saw no comparisons with alternative energy sources. So, I wondered where the PRC was. It wasn't happening with PNM either. I felt PRC was running way short for consumers. It's why I'm running for PRC.
Sandy Jones opening statement: Public Regulations Commissioner is a really important job, and I hope I can convince you to send me back to my job. My wife and I have a small business that works in all 33 counties. Every dime I've made I've reinvested in this state. I'm not planning to leave. I think it's important for you to know what my accomplishments have been.
We recently had a PNM rate increase case, and we returned $48 million in corporate income tax through the federal government to the consumer.
Facebook came into Los Lunas. The request was brought to me. They expected it to take many months. We got the application out in less than 30 days. It is bringing $1 million in gross receipts taxes to Los Lunas.
I intervened for the Casas Adobes Subdivision here in Mimbres, which now has a domestic mutual water association and is providing good water to its residents. I have had more than 50 town hall meetings across the area. I had one here last week. We have upped renewable energy by 2,300 megawatts just this year.
Ben Fisher, politics reporter for the Daily Press asked the first question. The PNM President Collawn said party makeup matters less to her company. "Do you think party affiliation affects your decisions?"
Jones: We follow and enforce laws brought by the Legislature. As for values, we worry about the working man. Are we putting New Mexicans to work? We look out for the little guy. Our regulatory decisions are made according to the law."
Fischmann: I've noted when participating in public hearings that they are tilted toward large companies. Utilities have deep pockets for lawyers. The burden of proof is much higher for those questioning the decisions. You need to level the playing field to let the little guy compete against the large companies. Your staff is not doing what it should be doing.
Jones rebutted: Stephen doesn't understand how it works. Anyone who wants to say our staff is incompetent, I won't allow. I'm not going to let you attack the staff. Come after me, if you want to, but not the staff. They are hardworking.
The first audience question was: "The PRC has power. What would you like to see to make your platform possible?"
Fischmann: Eighty percent of what needs to be improved at the PRC is at the rule-making level. Their decisions have led to higher costs and slower progress to renewable energy. In terms of the Legislature, they have to stay out of individual rate cases. The Legislature can help with requiring a stronger renewable energy portfolio law. There needs to be much more communication between the Legislature and the PRC. The Legislature has little understanding of what the PRC does.
Jones: One big piece is securitization deeds. They are working in more than 40 states. The Legislature can bring a bill forward to protect the ratepayers. I've worked hard to mend fences with the Legislature. I would like to change how they charge for filing fees. It's $25 for a filing fee. It should be $200 to $300 to file a request, so we can do more independently.
Fischmann rebutted: The National Regulatory Resource Institute did an audit of the PRC. The staff is not researching developments on the energy side. The staff is not particularly into new ideas in an industry that is moving so fast. They have to learn about new ideas. There is no curiosity in the PRC. The final thing is that we are way behind other states. Tax breaks mandated by the federal government should go back to the ratepayers.
Seibel asked a follow-up question: If staffing is at 30 percent to 40 percent below what it should be, what funding increases are needed and where would they come from?
Jones: We have four unfunded staffing positions. I hope to have money for them on July 1. We are on the road to having them filled. The Legislature recognizes other positions are necessary but didn't fund them. The Legislature needs to adequately fund us. The Legislature funded a study to help us. We need to beef up engineering staff, but we have to offer salaries that entice young people and those with experience.
Fischmann: You can do a lot of things more efficiently. Do that first, then decide what staff is needed. If 75 percent of my time is procedural and only 25 percent is meat, it's not efficient. The PRC also does not require utility transparency. Get facts into a list at the start of a document instead of sprinkled throughout the document. If we can identify what's needed up front, we can do a lot to speed up the process.
Jones: The utility has the burden of proof. If we don't follow due process, the Supreme Court overturns the decision. In a recent case, there was not enough evidence in the record to overturn the decision. Rules and procedures matter.
Fisher asked: You have to protect the consumer and the utility. What roles does the PRC paly in protecting the environment?
Fischmann: Protecting the environment is protecting the consumer. We don't need air pollution; we don’t need the dangers of nuclear power. It's a strong misrepresentation that protecting the environment costs more. It doesn't cost more. Storage is substantially cheaper than natural gas, and it's continuing to get cheaper. Arizona put a moratorium on building new natural gas plants, because they fear they might become obsolete.
Jones: No storage is capable of the large scale of energy needed at reasonable cost. People are doing more for renewable energy. Mariel Nanasi has fought every renewable project. She killed the 60 percent recommendation level for the renewable portfolio at the last Legislature. She is fighting the $40 million geothermal plant in Hidalgo County, which would bring a lot to the county. This commission has approved 2,300 megawatts of new renewable energy. We are doing everything we can to make renewable more available and affordable.
Fischmann: There are large-scale storage projects. In New Hampshire, they are giving incentives to home users and subsidizing them because they save the utilities money. Do a real hearing to get real facts, not just the ones PNM gives you.
Fisher asked: "The San Juan Generating Station still has issues to be resolved relating to its closing."
Jones: I wish they were resolved. There is a huge amount of stranded costs—about $54 million in taxes, 780 direct jobs and an estimated 2,000 to 3000 ancillary jobs. The closure will be devastating to San Juan County. I hope we can build to the future to get it expedited. A $380 million bailout is mentioned, but it will be less. Stephen talks about innovative ideas. Remember that pioneers get slaughtered and settlers become prosperous. We watch what California does all the time and they screw up a lot. We don't want 30 cents a kilowatt hour. In the Northeast, they are burning Russian LNG, because their initiatives are not providing enough electricity.
Fischmann: I have a suggestion that we learn from successes, not just failures. San Antonio, Texas, has cheap energy through Austin Energy, which is 50 percent renewable. San Juan is a huge issue. When we decide to use energy to subsidize communities, coal is a hell of a lot more expensive than renewable sources or natural gas. San Juan will put the costs on all the consumers in the state.
An audience question: Is there some way the PRC can effect where new alternative jobs can go?
Fischmann: No one should be mandating that kind of stuff. We already have interconnections. We can put in solar, but there are not a lot of long-term jobs there. In the northwest, they haven't increased their generating capacity for 20 years, because of improvements in efficiency. Energy efficiency is a huge area for development. We would do a great service for customers, instead of penalizing. Customers would benefit.
Jones: One thing that was floated on the potential San Juan shutdown was to make sure all replacement energy remains in San Juan County. It will have to come out of negotiations. The PRC can't mandate it. I suspect cooler heads will prevail to protect jobs. Otherwise, the Legislature may have to bail out the schools. It's a problem when Palo Verde (nuclear generation plant in Arizona) closes. Do New Mexico taxpayers go to Arizona and bail them out? We will try for fair costs and fair bailouts.
Fischmann: Talk about energy efficiency. You can put solar at schools and government buildings. Use them for students to learn about renewable energy and save money at the schools. Then there will be more jobs in San Juan County. Our job is to balance the needs of the utilities and the customers.
An audience question: Is net metering a good idea. If renewable energy is cheaper, why is there a renewable energy rider on my bill?
Jones: Of course, net metering is a good idea. Sooner or later, it will evolve. Why is there a renewable energy rider? It's because of the renewable cost threshold. The PRC looked at ways to protect consumers. The rider is there so more of the 3 percent renewable cost is passed on. If the 30 percent federal subsidy goes away, we don't want to suddenly have significantly higher renewable costs.
Fischmann: Yes, net metering is a good idea. There are debates on whether there are additional costs that should be put on those who have solar. There are different conclusions. Some say we still have distribution costs and more metering, with some energy going back into the system. Austin Energy recalculates every year. My take is there needs to be a sit down and have a docket item to do a cost analysis. Frankly, it's a moving target. My suggestion is to follow the facts and come up with a solution.
Jones: I think Steve and I finally agree on something. A docket does need to be done to look at the benefits and charges in net metering. I'm the one who killed the El Paso surcharge. When we see utilities come through without studies on benefits and charges, such as cost benefit analysis, we don't approve them.
Fisher asked: There are challenges of rural economics. Broadband is an issue. How can the Commission level the playing field?
Fischmann: I wish there were an easy answer. I commend Sandy for addressing the issue. The Legislature is trying to get a more affordable fee on broadband. We need a heckuva lot more than 10 times or even 100 times as much broadband in rural areas. I would like to explore more avenues. Sometimes, you put in incentives, but then people game them.
Jones: That's two we agree on. We all know that those in rural New Mexico can't compete without broadband. The federal government, way back when, put in the farm to market roads for the delivery of goods. If we don't have broadband, it will kill rural areas. Kids can't do school work or testing without robust broadband. We have $5 million in a fund for boosting broadband, but it's not enough.
Fischmann: I'm proud to have been endorsed by the Conservation Voters. We shouldn't be putting poor people under expensive energy. We need low cost and equitable charges for energy.
An audience question: What one thing will you do to promote renewables?
Jones: The same thing we've been doing. We have to keep moving forward. We have an abundance of sun and wind, but we have to transport it out of here. Some people are talking about not exporting it. Use it here. I think we can do both.
Fischmann: I think we should rethink the renewable threshold. Even without the 30 percent federal subsidy, renewable energy will still be cheaper. The second thing is let's get more demanding of utilities where we want them to build new facilities and to tilt it toward renewable. We will win. Third, El Paso Electric and PNM have a high resistance to renewable energy. They buy (Editor's Note: could not understand the word after listening to it several times, but he was talking about renewable energy credits, I think) renewable energy credits. El Paso only produces 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
Jones: We're not letting El Paso Electric buy credits and use them in New Mexico. The fault is in the (unknown acronym). The Commission has overwritten that policy several times. It's not my belief about utilities. They are not scared of building renewable. They and we have the responsibility for it to be done at the most affordable prices. The market is now driving toward wind.
An audience question: Is decentralized energy production easy to reconcile with utilities? [hard to understand the question]
Fischmann: Small production has a lot of benefits. It's more efficient if the distribution lines should go down. You don't have the same risks, with the same transmission lines and costs. A lot of benefits are also in distributed energy. Ten-megawatt rooftop solar plants would make the grid more resilient.
Jones: Decentralized can also have adverse effects. Whether community solar is gotten from El Paso Electric, for instance, is voluntary. You have to check out costs. For distributed generaton, when an entity files an application for distribution, they find out some of our lines have limited capacity. New Mexico is pioneering community production. It will be a big run for New Mexico. The risk is that managing the grid is much more complicated. Technology will help us get through this.
Fisher asked: We hear a lot about vacancies in PRC staff. How can you improve the situation?
Jones: The fire marshal has a huge problem. It was brought to the commission. The former fire marshal left, and things got out of hand. It happened about the same time as when New Mexico ran out of money. The volunteer fire departments didn't get their full allotments on July 1 that year. There was a huge crisis across the state. We hired a fire marshal, but we still have several full-time employee vacancies. These are the guys who inspect and promote safety. We hope we are on the road to recovery. We aren't serving the public well. It will take time to build it back up.
Fischmann: I have gotten a lot of feedback that lack of training and equipment have put things at risk. It's a problem. There's lots of frustration. Clearly, we need to work on the sweep of the $72 million to $73 million by the state. It didn't help that they were supposed to give the money back but haven't. It's a good idea to make noise, because this is putting people in danger. If there an arson investigation going on, it's a public safety issue. I will push for these funds.
Jones: We understood that if the money's not there, it's not there. When the money was swept, the state made sure the Mortgage Finance Authority took a delay in payments. We have fought for the funds. Additionally, we had an administrative hold on fire departments. The PRC asked the Department of Finance and Administration if we could write checks. I asked for it in writing. The DFA got writers' cramp.
An audience question: Are there security threats to infrastructure that may lead to massive outages?
Fischmann: I do not claim to be a cybersecurity specialist. Military bases have started to rely on their own renewable electricity sources. That has an implication for the larger grid. There are two competing directions—micro-grids, which are small independent grids can avoid security problems. Another direction is good export opportunities for wind energy, but there are interconnection problems. I think it will evolve into which will give the biggest bang for more reliability.
Jones: An interconnected grid can go any direction. Idle military bases cannot be subject to the interconnected grid. Western New Mexico is not part of the interconnectivity. Our vertically integrated grid is not part of other systems. I get security briefings. New Mexico needs to make sure utilities are doing everything for cybersecurity. It's the most important thing utilities are facing. It's not just the electrical grid; it's also the natural gas grid and the water grid, which face the same risks.
Fischmann: The development of technologies will provide more ways for people to choose how to get power. Utilities may face not having customers, because they have their own power. Before they do a big investment into security, they have to know where the system is going.
Audience question: What about improved public transportation?
Jones: We regulate taxis, limos, ambulances, shuttle services. We license and warrant companies. For safety and risk mitigation, they have to have adequate insurance.
Fischmann: I would follow a more aggressive tack. I would work with the Legislature and change the authority. I would do the same with broadband. The same applies with transportation. Services can be provided more efficiently. I would go to the Legislature and see what we can work out. I would provide a catalyst to jumpstart things.
Jones: I know a governor who got into trouble with a train. The PRC got involved in an overpass. We found out it was too low. The Department of Transportation came to us to get a waiver. We won the day by showing the importance of public safety and not awarding the waiver.
Fisher asked a question: The utility sector is dominated by a lack of competition. Do you see any possibility of market competition?
Fischmann: A lot of places have experimented and put in restructured generation. You take the generation and have to go to the customers and bid for the customers. They did that in Texas. Other places have aggregated power units. The city or county will get bids from utilities in California. They intended to get into renewables faster. Is the PRC getting us to renewables as fast as we want them to? The options are up to the Legislature.
Jones: It came up before the Legislature. We were almost ready to deregulate, but Enron had an issue. The legislation went away. Deregulation works well with a strong energy market. Places that say they are using 100 percent renewable energy aren't. We know how much renewable energy there is. There's some monkey business going on. We leave it to the Legislature. We can regulate distribution systems the same as the vertically integrated systems.
Fischmann: I do like the idea of more competition, but there are disadvantages. An argument is that one company embroiled with a private provider says storage is not a distribution asset. It's a generation asset, so the regulators don't know what to do with it. So, when a system is not vertically integrated, you have to match the regulatory regime to the system.
Seibel asked a follow up: The PRC is a regulatory agency with a fair amount of scandal.
Jones: We elect our commissioners. Ones who run for election, some may run off the rails. The third week I got back on the Commission, I asked for an ethics commission made up of people such as retired Supreme Court judges, people with ethics. But it didn't go anywhere. We're in a battle for who took money from this guy. The law is vague. If we had an ethics review board it would help. The Legislature consistently fails at naming an ethics review board every time it comes up. But even when they do think about it, they exclude the PRC.
Question: How would you change or reform the PRC?
Fischmann: I think we need to move carefully to an appointed commission. That way it can assure having the skill sets needed. There needs to be rule-making with more transparency for utilities. I would like to see the PRC take control of the dockets and not let regulated entities call the shots. I'm not an ethics guy. Our ethics should be to do it right.
Jones: Wouldn't you love to have Susana to appoint you as commissioner? Seventy-four percent of commissioners across the country are appointed. They are government insiders, who were senators, legislators or aides to the governor. If you want insider baseball, ask for appointed commissioners. Do you make a call to the governor? Do you get a call back? We're very available to the public. Don't give up your choice. Don't delegate to a single governor. Pick up the phone and call us. You can't get hold of the governor's office.
Audience question: If I'm not mistaken, the oversight of medical systems was partitioned out of the PRC. What responsibility remains with the PRC and what should return to the PRC?
Fischmann: Medical insurance is the only thing I can think of that used to be under the PRC. I think the span of the PRC, even as it has been shrunk, is still too large. Commissioners are being asked about so many things. It's not fair for them to have to be knowledgeable in all of them. They have to depend on staff. Corporations have been peeled off and insurance peeled off. They have to make good decisions. Why is the fire marshal under the PRC? Don't throw too many things at the PRC to do well. I think agencies should do a few things well, not a lot of things poorly. Appointed doesn't have to be the governor. The Legislature can do it.
Jones: It's still insider baseball. I'm not having any trouble understanding all our responsibility. Maybe someone else is. I still don't understand the partitioning of medical insurance. I would like more information on the question.
Seibel then asked the traditional last question of Daily Press candidate forums—the time machine question.
Seibel: Put yourself four years in the future. You have won the primary and the general election this year. You've served almost four years and you are back here in the room asking for the vote for re-election. What is the thing you are most proud of accomplishing?
Jones: I think it's pretty obvious if I get back to the commission. If you can't look back at yourself and find a number of accomplishments, you haven't done yourself any good or for your customers. I would transform the Commission to a younger staff and bring wages into the future, where you have a genuine ability to look at the future. We have to have the Legislature work with us. We can't get to more renewable with older folks. We need to have recruitment for young staffers. We need to know New Mexicans have jobs here in New Mexico.
Fischmann: My No. 1 priority would be to transform the agency from one dominated by insider baseball to one that is becoming objective with fact-based decision-making. I'm a big environmental guy, so if the agency is passionate about fact-based renewable energy, it will take care of itself. But right now, the agency is so dominated by utility procedures and influence and industry influence, it's biased. The PRC got a contract; the staff said it was too expensive, and the commissioners overrule staff. Two months later, two of our commissioners had a bunch of money in their campaign accounts from the contractor—Linda Lovejoy and the fellow sitting next to me. That is insider baseball. PNM rates have gone up 63 percent over the past 10 years. Sandy has taken contributions from PNM lobbyists. There's lots of insider baseball.
Jones closing statement: Hearing officers are not always right. I spent a lot of time as a contractor. I probably understand contracts better than the hearing officer did.
Your finances, your dark money, your intervenor who has put a lot of money into your campaign, and because of her appeal, Lordsburg may lose its project. It's in the public interest to put renewable energy into this state. Because of that delay, we're going to burn gas and coal for another three years, while it works its way through the courts.
It's absolutely disingenuous to say what you just said. The company gave me a donation because they believe in renewable energy, because I believe in creating New Mexico jobs. I don't believe in obstructing. I don't believe in killing renewable energy. I believe in moving this state forward. If you or anyone in this room thinks a donation would make a difference in my vote, you're a sad state of affairs.
But let's talk about the ones who gave you money whose partner was thrown out of the state of Texas because of deceptive trade practices. Why don't you take a look at those guys? The company that gave me money went from four employees to 80 to date. They also gave half a million dollars to the Roadrunner Food Bank to put in a solar facility and to provide 275, 0000 meals a year.
I think we need renewable energy in this state. I hate seeing environmental groups killing renewable energy projects for the sake of lining their pockets. It's very unfortunate when I can't talk about the good things we need to do, but I have to defend myself against dark money. They're your people and if you can't get a contribution, it's because they are people who believe in me and I will serve this state as well as I can, for all New Mexicans to have jobs, so we quit exporting our greatest resource—our kids. I'm going to continue that fight.
Fischmann closing statement: I want to be the fellow who converted the PRC from a public utility-dominated agency to a public interest-dominated agency. I don't know the answer. Let the facts decide if renewable energy is really expensive energy that will hurt the low-income ratepayers, or if we can get reliable energy so much cheaper with wind or solar. The fact is, we should. I'm confident if we look at the facts, we will get lower rates for utilities because we're looking at facts. It doesn't have to be geothermal at Lordsburg, it can be wind, it can be solar.
No. 2, I just don't like the idea that anyone can accept contributions when you're giving out contracts with taxpayer money. It shouldn't happen. It shouldn't be accepted. People giving me donations are individual citizens. A PAC was set up. I don't control it. I'm proud they are doing it. They are consumer-interested, environmental-interested groups that don't have a profit motive. They have their view of public interest.
I'm sorry that Affordable Solar got a $73 million contract from the PRC. This week they are coming back for another contract with El Paso Electric. Linda and Sandy better recuse themselves. We can't have faith in their integrity that's it's not a donation influencing their decision.
If we step back, take money out, we can get a PRC that makes the right decisions. Energy will be cheaper; it will be cleaner; and we will be a stronger state for it.
Early voting is underway at the Grant County Clerk's Officer from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday, June 2. Early voting begins at the Bayard Community Center this Saturday, with hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The primary election is set for Tuesday, June 5, 2018 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at voter convenience centers.