By Steve Terrell | The New Mexican

The only contested race for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission is a rematch, and the challenger is hitting the incumbent hard with allegations of being deferential to New Mexico’s largest utility company.

Incumbent Karen Montoya again faces Cynthia Hall in the Democratic primary election for the $90,000-a-year job in Albuquerque-based District 1. The race has statewide interest, though, because an advocacy group regularly has accused Montoya of fraternizing with or assisting Public Service Company of New Mexico.

Hall, a lawyer who previously worked for the Public Regulation Commission, finished second to Montoya in a three-way race in 2012. Now, Hall says part of Montoya’s track record is a pattern of being “far too close to an important regulated entity.”

And Hall has made an issue of the Public Regulation Commission’s approval last year of PNM’s controversial plan to close two coal-fired units of the San Juan Generating Station and replace the lost energy capacity with the continued use of coal in the remaining units, nuclear power from Arizona, natural gas and a relatively small amount of renewable energy.

Montoya declined to be interviewed for this story unless questions were submitted in advance. The New Mexican would not provide her with a list of questions, but made clear that inquiries would focus on her record and platform.

Montoya defended the San Juan decision in a news release issued last December on the day the plan was approved. “The modified stipulation we approved today is a vast improvement over what was originally proposed,” Montoya said. “… It protects the public interest and reduces environmental pollution while minimizing economic impacts and keeping utility bills as low as possible.”

After winning concessions from PNM, the commission eventually approved the compromise plan. It also was endorsed by several previous opponents, including the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy and Western Resource Advocates.

Montoya’s statement said the plan “will eliminate 836 megawatts of coal-fired generation (50 percent of the capacity at San Juan). Greenhouse gases will be reduced by approximately half. Nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide emissions will be reduced by 62 percent, 67 percent, and 44 percent, respectively, and emissions of particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other hazardous air pollutants will be reduced by approximately 50 percent. Water use and fugitive dust emissions will also be reduced by about 50 percent.”

Challenger Hall said in a recent interview that, as she’s campaigned door to door, anyone who is aware of the Public Regulation Commission has a negative opinion about it. Some, she said, brought up the commission’s infighting and perceived dysfunction. Others specifically complained about the San Juan decision.

Hall, in her speech to the state Democratic Party’s pre-primary convention this year, said the San Juan decision “saddles ratepayers with more costs in the future for closing the aging coal and nuclear plants. In New Mexico, it’s a no-brainer that we should be using more renewable energy, especially solar energy, which is cheaper than gas now and is therefore both economically and environmentally sustainable.”

Hall has pointed to allegations by an advocacy group, New Energy Economy, which tried to have Montoya and three other commissioners removed from the San Juan power plant case because of alleged conflicts of interest. Among the allegations against Montoya were that she solicited a PNM liaison to the commission to make a political contribution to state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg’s 2014 campaign. The utility indeed contributed to Eichenberg but said it was not because of Montoya’s request.

New Energy Economy’s suit to remove four of the five commissioners went before the state Supreme Court in November. The high court ruled against New Energy’s petition and did not disqualify Montoya or any of the other commissioners. But in announcing the decision, Barbara Vigil, who was chief justice at the time, said, the commission would face “heightened scrutiny” over actions taken regarding the aging power plant. Vigil said the justices found that “issues raised in the petition are important concerns.”

Hall said that, when she worked in the general counsel’s office of the commission, some of her duties were writing one-page summaries of complex cases. She said most commissioners didn’t read the case filings. This means the commissioners didn’t always make the most informed decisions and they were “vulnerable to political influence.” Hall said she would bring a deep understanding of utility rate cases to the commission.

Montoya on her website touts her record as commissioner. She said in the last four years, the commission has approved the largest solar array in New Mexico, in the Roswell area. Other achievements, she said, were lowering the universal service fee on New Mexicans’ phone bills, and requiring more reporting on how the $24 million raised by that fee is used.

Montoya won her first term in 2012 by taking more than 36 percent of the Democratic primary vote, besting Hall by 3 percentage points or less than 1,000 votes. A third candidate, former state Rep. Al Park of Albuquerque, got 30.5 percent of the vote. Montoya went on to defeat Republican Christopher Ocksrider in the 2012 general election. There is no Republican candidate this year, so the winner of the primary between Hall and Montoya won’t face opposition in the November general election.