Pay for state utility regulators could rise 56%

·3 min read

Jan. 19—A giant pay raise proposed in the Legislature for the next set of public regulation commissioners received a nod of agreement Tuesday from at least a couple of the current commissioners.

"They'd better be some hot shots," Commissioner Stephen Fischmann of Las Cruces said of the next panel of commissioners.

Fischmann said he meant it.

"Well, I hope they do hire some hot shots," he said. "And I hope that they're forward-looking."

The plan to raise commissioners' pay by 56 percent coincides with the breakup of the existing five-member elected commission and the creation of a three-person, governor-appointed panel next year. New Mexico voters in 2020 approved the change with about 55 percent of the vote.

Commissioners' pay could rise from $90,000 a year to $140,000 if the Legislature approves the plan during the 30-day session, which started Tuesday.

Two current commissioners said they thought it was a smart proposal even if they won't be the recipients. The initial legislative move to increase pay for some statewide officials called for commissioners to get a raise from $90,000 a year to $115,000. But Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington, called for an increase to $140,000, the biggest raise of all those proposed.

And while it wasn't certain Tuesday if the plan would kick in July 1, thus benefiting the current commission, or Jan. 1, 2023, Neville said his intentions were clear.

"It was not my intent to do a change for the current people," he said of the existing commissioners. Neville said he would follow the bill as it progresses through the session.

Commissioners have long argued their work is hard and technical. It's part science, part law, part public policy and part common sense.

It involves dissecting complicated cases involving electricity rate increases, mergers of utility companies, closure of coal-burning plants and generating renewable energy from the sun and wind.

Neville said he'd like to see professionals selected for the commission, such as attorneys, engineers and certified public accountants.

Through the years, critics found some commissioners underqualified for the complexity of the position. And about 10 years ago, a couple of commissioners were convicted of felonies. One used his state gas card fraudulently and was fined for lying on his campaign finance documents.

Commission Chairman Joseph Maestas of Santa Fe said the salary structure for state officials is behind the times.

"I support it even though it won't benefit me," Maestas said of the raise. "And if you want to attract the best and brightest, you need to offer fair and just compensation."

Maestas, a civil engineer, is running for state auditor. That position, too, is mentioned in the legislation for a pay hike, from $85,000 a year to $115,000.

Other increases would go to the governor, from $110,000 to $150,000; the attorney general, from $95,000 to $125,000; the commissioner of public lands, from $90,000 to $125,000; and the lieutenant governor, secretary of state and treasurer, from $85,000 to $115,000.

Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar of Northwest New Mexico said commissioners and others were recommended for raises several years ago. Then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the 10 percent raises.

"And I really don't have any other comment beyond that," Becenti-Aguilar said.