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PRC candidates debate insurance oversight, coal vs. solar at energy industry forum
Sharp divisions emerged on renewable energy and insurance rate regulation between four Public Regulation Commission (PRC) candidates at an industry-sponsored candidates’ forum hosted Wednesday by the New Mexico Utility Shareholders Alliance.
“What’s the point of having a state Superintendent of Insurance if we’re not going to let him do his job?” Gary J. Montoya said in response to calls by the other candidates for more government transparency and PRC oversight of the controversial state Division of Insurance.
Montoya, a Republican, has aligned himself with the state’s “tea party” movement.
“It’s about trust,” Montoya said. “Without trust there is no transparency.”
Montoya’s comments echoed state Superintendent of Insurance John Franchini‘s pleas for consumer trust of the insurance industry and his Division at an Aug. 25 Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico rate hearing.
But the superintendent “has no business making (health insurance) rate change decisions on his own,” countered Montoya’s fellow Republican and District 5 candidate Ben L. Hall.
“I hope to take away his ability to make rate changes without consulting the commission,” Hall said, agreeing with similar comments by District 2 candidate and outgoing Republican state land commissioner Patrick H. Lyons.
“It’s gonna take a legislative change,” Lyons said. “But we need to make sure the superintendent doesn’t approve rate hikes above 2 or 3 percent without consumer and insurance company input at a rate hearing in front of the full, elected commission.”
Franchini’s efforts to keep an audit report critical of the Division from public view were unjustified, Hall added.
“That report should’ve been published for the public right away,” he told The Independent before the forum. “There’s no reason to keep it secret.”
Four PRC candidates attended Wednesday’s forum: Lyons; both PRC District 4 candidates, Montoya and sitting commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar; and Hall.
Hall’s opponent Bill McCamley was unable to attend due to a death in his family.
The PRC is the state’s most powerful regulatory agency, overseeing the utilities and transportation industries, and oversees the Corporations Commission and the semi-autonomous Fire Marshal’s office and Division of Insurance.
Most of the candidates’ comments Wednesday centered on renewable energy issues, oversight of the Division of Insurance, and improving transparency at the PRC.
Comments by PRC District 4 candidates Becenti-Aguilar and Montoya revealed stark contrasts in their regulatory philosophies and an underlying tension over which candidate would better represent Navajo constituents. District 4 includes the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation.
Becenti-Aguilar, who lives in Albuquerque, said that Navajo elders have long taught children to seek political office and then return home to help the Navajo people. Becenti-Aguilar grew up in a hogan without running water, electricity or phones, she said.
“I always wanted to go home and serve the Navajo people,” she said.
Montoya, who is Hispanic and is married to a Navajo, said his family lived under similar circumstances while building their home in Shiprock.
The Northern Navajo Agency Council recently endorsed Montoya over Becenti-Aguilar.
Becenti-Aguilar, who had prevailed in a hotly contested Democratic primary, was appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson after the state Supreme Court removed her predecessor, Carol Sloan, from the PRC. Her duties at the PRC have given Montoya a campaigning advantage in the district, she suggested to The Independent.
Coal, nuclear vs. solar
Of the four candidates at Wednesday’s forum, only Becenti-Aguilar spoke strongly in favor of promoting renewable energy sources like solar power.
Coal plant pollution affects the Navajo Nation, she said.
Montoya, in contrast, dismissed PRC enforcement of legislative mandates on how much and which renewables utilities must use for power production as “micro-managing.”
Lyons agreed, saying it should be up to utilities to determine the most efficient role for renewable energy sources.
“All of us would like to see perfectly clean air but the question is, how much does it cost,” Hall said.
Lyons, Hall and Montoya all advocated nuclear, natural gas and “clean coal” technology.
“We have a 300-year reserve of coal in America,” Lyons noted. “It’s the cheapest power source.”
Sharp contrast in candidates’ approach to insurance division
Becenti-Aguilar opposes legislative proposals to remove the Division of Insurance from the PRC but wants to see public hearings in front of the full PRC for rate hikes, she said.
Lyons and Hall agreed, and Lyons called for closer PRC oversight of the Division’s contracting practices. (Division contracts and purchase orders should be managed by the PRC rather than internally at the Division, Lyons told The Independent before the forum.)
But Montoya attributed a pattern of steep rate hikes by health insurers to a lack of competition in the state and emphasized a need for tort reform to limit medical malpractice lawsuits.
“But with federal (health) reforms, it looks like we’re going to a single-payer system so it might all be irrelevant,” Montoya added.
Becenti-Aguilar and Lyons advocate the full commission voting on staff hiring decisions and both, along with Hall, emphasized the importance of showing up to all commission hearings.
“I do not miss meetings,” Becenti-Aguilar emphasized more than once.
Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr., who had missed Tuesday’s PRC meeting but attended Wednesday’s debate, told The Independent he was at the forum to defend the scandal-plagued commission’s reputation.
“I can’t stand when candidates point negative fingers at this commission,” Block said. “I think they did go light on that today.”