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PRC candidates Lyons, Dubois differ on ethics, oversight
Stephanie DuBois has worked as a dog trainer, bookkeeper and waitress, and managed the Deming Chamber of Commerce for three years.
Now, the Tularosa businesswoman who laughingly refers to herself as a “dog groomer” is going up against one of New Mexico’s most powerful Republicans for a seat on the state’s most powerful regulatory commission.
DuBois, 65, and outgoing State Land Office commissioner and Cuervo rancher Patrick Lyons, 56, are vying to replace outgoing Public Regulation Commission (PRC) District 2 commissioner and Commission chairman David King.
King’s sprawling district covers Torrance County and most of the southeastern and south-central part of the state.
The PRC regulates the transportation and insurance industries, gas and electric utilities, pipeline safety, the state fire marshal’s office and the state Corporations Commission.
Four years ago, DuBois unsuccessfully challenged King, who gives her long odds on defeating Lyons this time around.
But in an underdog year when voters are in an anti-incumbent mood, anything is possible, DuBois believes.
“He has name recognition – but not all of it’s good,” DuBois said of Lyons, noting that many donors to Lyons’ campaign are from out of state. “I’m the clean candidate with clean money. My campaign is 100 percent publicly funded.”
Lyons will not use controversial campaign money after all
Lyons’s decision to roll over $35,000 left over from his previous State Land Office races to his PRC campaign created controversy because some of that money came in donations exceeding the $500 cap that applies to PRC campaigns, and because some donations were from industries regulated by the PRC. Such donations are forbidden in PRC races.
Secretary of State Mary Herrera ruled in April that using the left-over donations from a previous race is legal.
But Lyons will not use that money in his PRC race after all, he told The Independent Sunday.
“We’re planning to donate it to charity or use it for a campaign for a different position,” Lyons said.
Lyons’s Land Office also faces a sweeping special audit by State Auditor Hector Balderas’s office, whose investigators are looking into approximately 100 land sales, swaps and leases of state land. Lyons dismisses the audit as a politically motivated attack.
“They’ve been bothering us for two years and can’t find anything,” Lyons told The Independent. “It’s just a political audit. A bunch of progressive Democrats in the House sent the auditor after me.”
Candidates offer strikingly different strategies for combating ‘political hires’
DuBois and Lyons have both pledged to restore “respect and integrity” to the PRC. But they would approach that goal in very different ways.
Staffers have repeatedly complained to The Independent that commissioners interfere with staff hiring, pressuring bureau chiefs to interview and hire unqualified individuals.
Both Republican Ben Hall and Democrat Bill McCamley, who are vying to replace outgoing District 5 PRC Commissioner Sandy Jones, have pledged not to involve themselves in staff hiring decisions beyond their personal assistants.
DuBois joined them this week, saying she would not get involved in staff hiring decisions.
But Lyons believes the solution to political hiring at the PRC is for the commission to become more involved in the process, not less. He would ask the Legislature to allow commissioners to make all hiring and firing decisions, he said.
“All the hiring, pay increases – that should go through the Commission,” Lyons said. “Every position posted should come before the Commission for a vote. The division directors could narrow it down to five people and the commissioners would interview them and make a decision. If you let the supervisors pick, you have too many people doing all the hiring.”
A civil service test for state employees would create a pool of qualified individuals and help put a quick end to political hiring of unqualified candidates, DuBois suggested.
But Lyons scoffed at that suggestion.
“That’s just going to expand government and create a new bureaucracy,” Lyons said.
For much the same reason, Lyons said, he opposes proposals to make the PRC’s controversial and semi-autonomous Division of Insurance a stand-alone elected office.
Experience more important than education, both candidates say
Lyons, who holds a Master’s degree in agriculture from Colorado State University, has DuBois beat on formal education, she is quick to acknowledge.
“I didn’t go to college,” DuBois volunteered. “I don’t have a degree. I went to the school of hard knocks. I did take classes on public speaking and interpersonal communication in Ruidoso. I’m also a certified mediator at magistrate court; I do simple cases on payday loans, that sort of thing. That’d help me on the commission because it’s all about listening and fairness.”
But if elected, DuBois said she would pursue continuing education training in renewable energy and other areas of regulation, which are offered by professional associations.
More important than education is experience, Lyons said Sunday.
“I’m the only one with the experience of actually running a comparably sized agency,” Lyons said. “There’s a lot of overlap between the Land Office and the PRC. A lot of the issues are the same, such as alternative energy, power lines, rights of way. Pipeline safety, we deal with pipelines (in the Land Office). And I’m the only candidate who has run a budget of similar size.”
More PRC scrutiny of insurance rate hikes, candidates agree
DuBois and Lyons both voiced opposition to legislators’ proposal that the division be moved to another executive-branch agency, citing the importance of close oversight of insurance rates by elected officials.
Both DuBois and Lyons acknowledged serious oversight lapses by the division and voiced support for Commissioner Jason Marks’s proposal that insurance rate hikes exceeding 10 percent should automatically trigger public hearings in front of the full commission. Currently, the insurance superintendent can approve rate hikes without consulting the commission.
But both Lyons and DuBois think the 10 percent threshold for hearings is too high.
“Colorado has public hearings at 5 percent,” Lyons said. “I’d say anything over a 6-percent rate increase should come to the commission. You can’t have the (insurance) superintendent approving a 21 percent rate hike like the Blue Cross case. Those need to be approved by the five commissioners, not one person. If we need legislative change to make that happen, I support the legislative change. ”
DuBois puts the threshold even lower.
“I think any substantial increase should be scrutinized,” DuBois said. “If somebody’s paying $500 a month on their health insurance, a 10 percent increase would be another $50 a month. What’s wrong with hearings for increases even at 4 or 5 percent?”
Commissioners need to spend more time with their constituents, DuBois said. She would like to see the Commission hold more regional town hall meetings and hearings around the state, echoing similar calls by Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar.