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Panel picks finalists for New Mexico regulatory commission

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's governor will have nine candidates to choose from as she fills a powerful regulatory commission that oversees utility rates and will help chart the state's course toward more renewable energy development.

A nominating committee voted unanimously Friday to forward the finalists' names to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It wasn't immediately clear how long the governor will take to make her appointments.

The candidates include a top official in the state attorney general's office, a policy expert with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C., an associate dean at the University of Florida's law school and an Albuquerque lawyer who has represented several New Mexico tribal communities.

The list of finalists for the Public Regulation Commission is the result of a monthslong selection process.

"Really we're picking people here who are going to look at not just today's problems, but tomorrow's problems and tomorrow's issues and we don't even know what they are," said Bill Brancard, a member of the nominating committee and a bureau chief with the state energy department.

Cydney Beadles, another member of the committee, said it is a pivotal time for utility regulation, noting that grid operations and energy markets are undergoing major transformations across the U.S.

"Utilities need predictable regulation now more than ever, and we, the state, need them as partners to spur economic growth and prosperity," she said. "Consumers need to feel confident that the commissioners know how to ensure the utilities spend no more than they have to during these rapidly changing conditions so that ratepayers pay no more than they have to. The scope of the PRC's duty is the public interest."

A constitutional amendment approved in 2020 changes the PRC from a five-member elected body representing districts around the state to a three-person panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the New Mexico Senate.

A coalition of nonprofit groups sought to overturn the change, saying Native American communities in particular would be disenfranchised since they would no longer have a say in choosing representation through elections. The state Supreme Court rejected the challenge earlier this week.

Krystal Curley is the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, one of the plaintiffs in the case. She addressed the nominating commission Friday while holding back tears.

This is "leaving a voice out for the indigenous people on the frontline communities that have faced the impacts of colonization for over 500 years," said Curley, who is Navajo. "For our voice to be eliminated in this way is unjust. It's hard for me to believe in the system."

Many of the recent decisions made by the PRC have had direct consequences for northwestern New Mexico, which is home to a large swath of the Navajo Nation as well as the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Those include the recent closure of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and projects for replacing the lost capacity with solar and battery storage systems.

None of the recommended candidates for the regulatory panel is from northwestern New Mexico. Five identify themselves as Democrats.

Joseph Little is among those who will be considered by the governor. From the Mescalero Apache Nation in southern New Mexico, Little has worked with tribes on everything from water rights to utility easements.

The others are Cholla Khoury, New Mexico's chief deputy attorney general for civil affairs; Amy Stein, who has worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and California before teaching in Florida; former Public Service Co. of New Mexico resource planner Patrick O'Connell; former Republican state lawmaker Brian Moore; FERC senior policy adviser Gabriel Aguilera; Carolyn Glick, who worked for years at the PRC as general counsel and a hearing examiner; Sandia National Laboratories engineer James Ellison; and Arthur O'Donnell, who has served as a PRC consultant.

Outgoing New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, chair of the nominating committee, acknowledged some of the criticism surrounding the PRC overhaul but said the measure was hotly debated and vetted over the course of several legislative sessions.

Egolf, who was among the Democrats pushing for the amendment, added that while 70% of San Juan County voters rejected the proposal, support was overwhelming in precincts that included the Navajo Nation.

"It's important that we all keep in mind that we are enacting the will of the people," he said. "This was not something that was done on the sly. This is not something that was done in some sort of like backroom deal."