Republicans and utility companies want to take away your right to elect the Corporation Commission

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Every year in the Arizona legislature there is a move by Republicans to change or to eliminate the duties of certain constitutionally prescribed elected statewide offices.

With regularity there has been a push to create a lieutenant governor position which would run in tandem with the governor solely for purposes of succession in office (in Arizona, the Secretary of State is next in line of succession). What duties this lieutenant governor would do has been the subject of much debate. The voters of Arizona have twice rejected the idea at the ballot.

Since the election of Democrat Kathy Hoffman to Superintendent of Public Instruction, there has been a move among Republicans in the legislature to strip the Department of Education of voucher oversight and give oversight of this GOP plaything to the current Republican State Treasurer.

Well, what about electing the State Treasurer? 48 of 50 states have a state treasurer, New York and Texas have a state comptroller. In several states the state treasurer is appointed by the governor: AK, GA, HI, MI, MN, MT, NJ, VA, and the American Territories of AS, GU, MP, VI and the District of Columbia.  In a few states the state treasurer is elected by the state legislature: Me, MD, NH, TN.

Back in the day when Arizona was dominated by large mining companies it probably made sense to elect a state mine inspector. But can’t this job be handled today just as efficiently by an administrative office? This is one constitutionally prescribed elected statewide office that we should consider eliminating.

The one constitutionally prescribed elected statewide office that we should not be eliminating is the Arizona Corporation Commission, yet that is exactly what Republicans are proposing to do in this legislative session, no doubt at the behest of Arizona’s largest utility company APS and its parent company Pinnacle West, guilty of buying the Corporation Commission in recent elections with massive amounts of dark money spending. APS acknowledges spending millions to elect Corporation Commission members, after years of questions.

Republican Senator David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista), the former House Speaker who left office in disgrace after abusing public funds for excessive spending on travel expenses, David Gowan won’t face charges, but he’s still guilty, introduced the proposed constitutional amendment in a resolution, SCR 1048, in the Senate.

Representative Ben Toma (R-Peoria), introduced a companion resolution in the House. Arizona Legislators Propose Governor, Not Voters, Choose Utility Regulators:

[The] Arizona legislator is proposing that the state’s five energy regulators be appointed by the governor, instead of elected by voters as they are now.

The suggested change would be a significant revision of the state’s constitution, and the proposal lands at a time of intense scrutiny for Arizona’s so-called fourth body of government — and one particular utility that it regulates.

In order to take effect, the proposal would need to pass both chambers of the Legislature and be approved by voters at the ballot.

Under the resolution, the Arizona governor, with the Senate’s review and approval, would pick the five people who sit on the Arizona Corporation Commission, as the body is called. Instead of serving four-year terms as they do now, they would hold the seat for five years, so that a fresh commissioner would cycle in every year.

Critics of the idea, which surfaces from time to time, immediately worried that it would make it easier for utilities to sway or corrupt the body of commissioners that watch over them.

Races for the Arizona Corporation Commission have, in recent years, been marred by substantiated allegations of undue influence from the very utilities that the Commission is supposed to regulate, namely Arizona Public Service, which in 2014 and 2016 poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaigns of its preferred candidates.

Last month, APS’s new CEO, Jeff Guldner, pledged that the utility would not get involved in or donate money to the campaigns of anyone running for the Corporation Commission.

Riiight. Totally believable (not). They will just run it through some other “Kochtopus” dark money entity. Who do they think they’re fooling?

“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Bob Burns, a Republican and the current chairman of the Corporation Commission, whose term expires next January. “If you’re gonna corrupt the process, it’s easier to corrupt one than however many voters we have,” he added, referring to the governor.

Governor Doug Ducey has been the largest recipient of dark money in his campaigns. See earlier, ‘Kochtopus’ dark money flowed freely to Doug Ducey campaign, and Arizona utility helps fund Ducey re-election campaign.

Burns and one other commissioner, Democrat Sandra Kennedy, both suggested in separate interviews that APS had something to do with the proposed change, albeit in different ways.

In 2009, Jessica Pacheco, a consultant who eventually became a lobbyist for APS, pitched a multi-pronged plan for the company to influence the Corporation Commission. One aspect of that plan included adding extra, appointed members to the Commission, the Arizona Republic reported in 2013.

APS’s efforts to influence elections were exposed last year, in part because of Burns’ and Kennedy’s threats to subpoena the company.

“Now they want to go a different route, I suspect,” Burns said.

Although Pacheco’s strategy appeared to push for the addition of appointed members, rather than the replacement of elected ones, Kennedy claimed, citing the Republic‘s story, “this was all part of her [Pacheco’s] plan to make it an appointed position.”

Like Burns, Kennedy opposed the change.

“Here, in Arizona, this is an independent commission, elected by the people, and it should really stay that way,” she said. “Because now, I am accountable to the people. If I am appointed by the governor, I’m not accountable to the people, I’m accountable to the governor.”

* * *

In a [bullshit] statement released Monday “on why he’s running SCR 1048,” Gowan said, “everyone seems to agree that the Commission is broken and the voters I talk to have very little faith in how it functions.”

“The idea is to take the special interests out of it and make it an appointed Commission like most states have,” he added.

“The solution is for Governors to appoint Commissioners who have the background, knowledge, and temperance to provide stability and appropriate regulation,” his statement read. “The Senate will get to review and confirm the appointees to ensure that future Commissioners are of the highest quality.”

Says the guy who should have been prosecuted for abuse of public funds. He’s a real judge of character to “ensure that future Commissioners are of the highest quality.”

On Thursday, state senators voted on the resolution that would put a question on this year’s ballot asking if the commissioners should continue to be elected or whether they should be appointed by the governor, with approval from the state Senate. Elect or appoint? Lawmakers hear arguments on how to select utility regulators:

Senate Resolution 1048, from Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, failed on a 4-4 tie vote Thursday, mostly along party lines. Three Democrats opposed, along with Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, who is seeking a seat on the commission this year [oh, HELL no!]

But similar measures from both Republicans and Democrats have yet to be considered.

“The commission is broken in such a fundamental way that small tweaks are not going to fix it,” said Constantin Querard, a political consultant who has run campaigns for people running for the commission.

He spoke at Thursday’s committee hearing in favor of appointing commissioners, even though by his admission that would reduce the need for his services.

The problem with the commission is that if either regulated utilities or environmental organizations support them as candidates with campaign money, the public trust immediately is lost, he said.

Big money followed renewable rules

Spending on the commission races, as well as public interest in the regulators, picked up after the commission passed a Renewable Energy Standard in 2006, requiring electric utilities to get a percentage of their power supply from sources like solar and wind, Querard said.

Two years later, in 2008, Democrats running for the commission worked together as a “solar team,” and one of them, Sam George, spent more than $500,000 on his race, triggering matching funds for the other two Democrats who were running as Clean Elections candidates with public money.

Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Paul Newman won election that year, joining what had been an all-Republican commission.

In 2012, APS and Southwest Gas, also regulated by the commission, spent money through the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry to help defeat the Democrats. Two years after that, APS spent millions on a dark-money campaign the get its favored Republicans elected to the board while the rooftop solar industry also backed preferred candidates.

In the 2018 election, environmental group NextGen Climate Action, funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, helped re-elect Kennedy with its spending on the race.

Regulatory capture is instant,” Querard said, referring to the political term for regulators who are beholden to the companies they regulate. “In the minds of the voters, everything is tainted. You either belong to APS or you belong to Tom Steyer.”

Efforts to curb spending in the races by utilities and environmental groups or other special interest groups with business at the commission will not succeed, Querard said.

“The best way to take the politics out of what should be a rule-setting body … is to go to an appointment,” he said. “If you endorse the current system, it can’t get better.”

The campaign issues at the commission come in addition to multiple controversies at the commission in recent years, including a former regulator who was put on trial for federal bribery charges, a highly contentious rate case from APS, a water company that required an emergency manager to take control.

Opponents want elected commissioners

Some people spoke Thursday in opposition to the resolutions, saying voters should continue to select the regulators.

“I think that there has been a lot of progress made at the Corporation Commission,” said Stacey Champion, a public relations professional and activist who has fought to oppose APS rates.

“I don’t know if you missed the memo or not, but APS has agreed not to be involved in the Corporation Commission races,” Champion said, referring to a recent pledge from the company CEO.

Don’t be fooled.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale — taking a break from sexually harassing lobbyists — said it was inappropriate for Champion to question the motives of commissioners, and that voters would decide whether or not to make the positions appointed.

“I’d like you to turn your disdain toward them (voters), not us (if it passes),” Ugenti-Rita said to Champion.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said one issue with voters selecting commissioners is that most people don’t know what the commission is or what the regulators do.

“Which, frankly, puts it more at risk of special interests coming in and buying an election,” Mesnard said.

He continued that because the governor’s office is so high profile, that official would be more responsive to selecting a reasonable commission.

Republicans also discussed during Thursday’s hearing how easy it is for special interests to swing a commission election because most of the candidates run with public funds and get about $300,000 combined for their primary and general election campaigns.

“I make a living running campaigns, and I’m telling you, you ought to get rid of a whole bunch of campaigns,” Querard said. “As low as my prices are, I can’t inform the electorate statewide on $114,000 who you are (as a commission candidate) and what you believe.”

Two other measures remain

The other resolutions put forth by lawmakers got almost as much discussion Thursday as the one that got voted on.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, sponsors Senate Resolution 1027 that would allow the governor, Senate president, Senate minority leader, House speaker and House minority leader all appoint one member of the commission every four years.

Sorry, no.

And Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria sponsors House Resolution 2041 that would have the governor appoint the commissioners but not allow more than three to be from a single political party.

Both of those resolutions, like Gowan’s, would require approval from voters if they get through the Legislature.

“It’s pretty interesting you have Mendez and Gowan bills basically going for the same outcome,” said Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said at Thursday’s hearing. “That does not happen very often. Unfortunately, I thought there would be more bipartisan support on this bill today.”

Livingston said the various duties of the Corporation Commission require experience, which candidates don’t always bring to the table.

“You need spreadsheet-type people in there,” he said. “It’s too bad that you know, very technical people usually have the hardest time running elections.”

Yeah, because corrupt Republican politicians who agree to do the bidding of the utility companies have no trouble attracting APS campaign cash to get elected to the commission.

The problem is not with the corporation commission, but with the culture of corruption among Republicans which has existed in this state for decades.




1 COMMENT

  1. Sorry, the last comment got lost. As an aside what do you do when one of the State elected office holders reaches the point of being mentally incapable of doing his job, let along finding his way to Phoenix from the Northwest. For many years Arizona had a positive National reputation for the selection methodology for its appellate judiciary. A generally well qualified independent commission reviewed applicants, received public input and forwarded a group of well qualifed applicants for appointment to the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. This positive reputation has been undermined by the Ducey groups, by manipulating the Judicial Commission, forcing otherwise unrecommendedable candidate upwards, packing the Supreme Court and finally picking two truly odious candidates for the packed SC. This preface finally gets to the ACC. Obviously the proposed change has no benefit to the consumer but lots of potential for the regulated companies. Following the manipulation of the Judicial Commission, you can bet the same thing would happen with an appointed ACC. The only real issue with the elected ACC is candidate campaign donation disclosure. If creeps like Gowan were as interested in immediate disclosure of any campaign donations over $100, from the actual real source, (so layers of deception like People for Making Arizona Wonderful and other similar nonsensical groups) we would not have the Forsee election problems we had before. In that election if immediate disclosure revealed the massive APS connection hopefully voters would have seen that. Voters have to pay some attention to these ACC seats also because of the direct effect on their pocketbooks. So occassionally Arizona voters (Voucher expansion for example) can be wise on election issues. I believe if this nonsense does creep its way to the ballot, it will get crushed by the voters.

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