- Associated Press - Monday, February 10, 2020

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona voters may be asked to decide in November whether they should continue electing utility regulators or let the governor choose who approves electricity and natural gas prices.

The debate comes amid growing scrutiny of political spending by Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electricity provider, and a commitment by its new chief executive not to spend money on races for the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Two proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced in the Legislature. O ne of them is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday. Placing the question on the November ballot requires a majority vote in the full House and Senate.

The need to raise money for a statewide campaign results in contributions from companies with an interest in the Corporation Commission’s business, such as utilities or solar companies, said Rep. Ben Toma, a Republican from Peoria who is introducing legislation in the House.

“Most of these commissioners don’t have the funds and can’t raise the funds to actually influence the voters, unless they’re being backed by one of these groups that stand to benefit,” Toma said. “Obviously the conflicts of interest should be apparent.”

Sen. David Gowan, a Republican from Sierra Vista who introduced similar legislation, said he’s “trying to get the politics out of our energy.”

You’re never going to entirely eliminate politics, he said, “but certainly there can be some checks and balances to the situation.”

When filling vacancies from the early departure of elected commissioners, Gov. Doug Ducey has favored people with experience in politics. Lea Marquez Petersen, who was appointed last year, and Andy Tobin, are both Republicans who ran unsuccessfully for Congress before their appointments.

Arizona is one of 14 states where utility regulators are elected, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Regulators in other states are appointed, mostly by the governor but by the Legislature in a few.

Stacey Champion, a leading critic of APS who has challenged the company’s recent rate increases, said the proposal is “a terrible idea” that would allow utilities to quietly influence their regulators by lobbying the governor.

It’s no coincidence it’s being proposed now that the public is paying closer attention to Corporation Commission campaigns in light of controversy over political contributions by APS, she said.

““They’re going to keep buying influence, they’re going to keep buying power and castrate the ACC,” Champion said.

APS spokeswoman Lily Quezada said in an email the company has no position on Gowan’s legislation.

“We will remain focused on working with the ACC regardless of how commissioners are selected,” she said in an email.

The commission sets prices, safety standards and performance regulations for investor-owned gas, electric and water utilities including APS, Tucson Electric Power, Southwest Gas and Epcor. It also registers corporations and limited liability companies, enforces laws around stock offerings and regulates the safety of railroads and pipelines.

Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1984 ballot measure that would have shifted the Corporation Commission to appointments instead of elections.

Gowan said an appointment by the governor with Senate confirmation would likely lead to appointments of people with expertise in the field. His resolution doesn’t require any specific qualifications but would allow the Legislature to set them.

Toma’s proposal is silent about qualifications. But it says no more than three of the five commissioners can come from the same political party.


This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Stacey Champion’s name.

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