Commentary: Let's step back from the exaggerations and insults of political campaigns and imagine we're on the selection committee to pick between finalists for a job. Say, Sandy Jones and Steve Fischmann for Public Regulation Commissioner.
Both are smart and capable. Fischmann had a business career with Levi Strauss, then was a responsive and thoughtful state senator here. I met Jones years ago. He was congenial and clearly a problem-solver; and he's now had extensive experience as a PRC commissioner.
Whom I'd choose is related to the PRC's current situation (see last column) -- and not because I want to blame Chairman Jones for everything. Many problems preceded him, some are budget related, and others systemic.
In my inexpert view, the key issues facing the PRC are: equalizing the conflict between huge utilities (and subcontractors) and ratepayers (and the public interest); moving rapidly toward greater use of renewables and a more distributed system; improving PRC morale; and increasing public trust in the Commission.
On those, Fischmann seems the better choice.
Fischmann advocates for the public (opposing usurious loan sharks), the environment, and PRC ratepayers. Jones has done some good things at the PRC but appears uncomfortably close to those he regulates.
Jones criticizes Fischmann for contributions from intervenors, and also says Fischmann's campaign and independent PAC's collaborate illegally. Fischmann criticizes Jones for getting much of his campaign funding from folks who stand to benefit from PRC decisions, such as Affordable Solar. (The secretary of state is referring these complaints to the AG. We may hear nothing before the primary election day, June 5.)
I'm not convinced either has broken the law; but given the tilted playing field that favors utilities, I'm less comfortable with Mr. Jones' contributors. Jones' campaign consultant in 2014 was a lobbyist for Affordable Solar. Jones recently voted to overturn a hearing examiner's conclusion that PNM and Affordable, without fair bidding, reached a deal that cost ratepayers too much.
Jones says he favors solar. He's done some things to help make that happen, but also been instrumental in approving nonrenewable power plants that may not have been as necessary or sensible as the utilities convinced a PRC majority they were. Jones recognizes we're headed toward solar; but if I'm right that we're on the cusp of real change – a lot more renewables and decentralization, soon – I think Fischmann has the vision to help us get there. (Environmental groups, some from outside the state, concerned about climate change are contributing heavily to PAC's that support Fischmann. Jones says he's being significantly outspent. Ironically, he may well be.)
A National Regulatory Research Institute evaluation and some interviews indicate that morale is a serious problem. Part of that is funding (the Legislature's responsibility); but part of it is what the report calls perceived “lack of respect for staff by commissioners and others” and what another source says are too many decisions overruling hearing examiners in favor of utilities. And although I like Jones, I've heard very negative views from the (admittedly small sample of) people who've communicated with me. They may be malcontents; but his response to the NRRI evaluation is excessively defensive. I wish he'd let the Commission discuss the evaluation with the evaluator.
It seems a time for change. Both men are effective. Fischmann recognizes the urgency of doing all we reasonably can do to diminish our collective energy footprint – and give ratepayers a fairer shake. And that's the job!