The three Democrats hoping to win election and regulate utilities as part of the Arizona Corporation Commission took verbal jabs at each other Wednesday at a debate hosted by The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com.
Republic reporter Mary Jo Pitzl, serving as moderator, asked the trio whether utility customers would pay too much if the state requires more use of solar and other renewable energy, how they would proceed with a possible rehearing of Arizona Public Service Co.’s rate hike, and what separates the candidates from one another.
Two Democrats will move on from the Aug. 28 primary election and face two Republicans in the general election in November.
Five elected Corporation Commission members set rates and other policies for electric, water and gas utilities in Arizona. They also oversee other matters such as securities regulation, railroad crossings and power-plant and power-line locations.
They are elected to four-year terms and are paid $80,000 annually.
The Arizona Republic’s Ryan Randazzo explains what the Arizona Corporation Commission does and how these five elected officials can have a big impact on your electric bill.
No Democrats since 2012
Two of the five seats currently held by Republicans are up for election this year, with the incumbents running to retain their positions.
Democrats running this year are former commissioners Bill Mundell and Sandra Kennedy and newcomer Kiana Maria Sears. Mundell and Kennedy are campaigning together.
Kennedy was one of two Democrats — the other Paul Newman — on the commission who lost their seats in the 2012 election. They were the last Democrats in Arizona elected to statewide office.
The candidates were asked how they would work with the Republican majority at the commission if they won.
Kennedy said she could work with sitting Commissioner Robert Burns, who has been fighting to force APS to reveal what its parent company spends to influence elections, including those for the Corporation Commission.
“He’s been out there fighting the good fight with APS to get them to open their books,” said Kennedy, who was elected and served one term on the Corporation Commission. Before that, she served six years as a state representative starting in 1986, and another six as a state senator. She also owned a restaurant.
Mundell said he also could work with Burns. He also said his other public-office experience would allow him to work with Republicans.
Mundell was appointed to the commission as a Republican and served two full terms, ending in 2009. Before that, he served in the state Legislature and was a municipal-court judge. Including experience at the Registrar of Contractors, he has worked in all three branches of government and the commission, often referred to as the fourth branch of state government.
Sears said her experience working six years in the utilities division of the Corporation Commission taught her to work with both parties.
“I’ve had the opportunity to go back and forth, serving both sides,” Sears said.
There are three big reasons why Arizona’s largest utility is so involved in politics.
All support more solar
Renewable energy has been a primary campaign issue for Democrats running for the Corporation Commission in the past several election cycles, and this year is no different.
All three Democrats support a ballot initiative that, should it survive a legal challenge, will ask voters to increase the requirement for utilities to get half their power from renewable sources such as solar by 2030.
Sears, however, had some additional hopes for the state. She hopes half of all energy comes from solar, with additional contributions from wind and other renewables.
Her opponents said Sears was not grasping the details that separate the ballot initiative from a separate proposal from sitting Commissioner Andy Tobin, who wants to get 80 percent of utilities’ power from renewables by 2050 and count nuclear power toward that goal.
“Ms. Sears has on her website the same language as the Tobin proposal, so I don’t know what she supports,” Kennedy said. “The Tobin plan kicks the can down the road.”
Sears later clarified that she doesn’t support nuclear energy counting toward the goal.
Mundell was among the authors of the state’s renewable-energy standard that requires electric companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2025. He said he supports the ballot initiative because the standard is “long overdue” to be increased.
“I strongly support the clean-energy initiative, as that is the only way we are going to get there with the current commission,” Mundell said.
What about cost?
Pitzl asked the Democrats about the assertion from APS that the ballot initiative would double electric bills because it would force the utility to purchase substantially more power from intermittent power sources such as solar and wind.
Mundell cited a December report from Excel Energy in Colorado, which had issued a request for proposals for power and received many solicitations offering to sell the utility solar and wind power, with battery storage to provide power at night and when the wind is calm, for less than the average cost of traditionally cheap coal power in the state.
“Those are scare tactics from APS to stop this initiative from passing,” Mundell said.
Kennedy agreed the price was not a concern with the renewable plan, and said if the state doesn’t increase the use of renewables, it is a risk to the economy.
“When you have California, Nevada and Colorado who have upped the ante when it comes to renewable energy … Arizona is not going to be a player if this initiative does not come to pass,” she said.
Sears said renewables cost less than the current price of power.
Taking on APS
Much of Mundell and Kennedy’s campaign is focused on taking on the state’s biggest utility, APS, which has about 1.1 million customers.
All three candidates support reopening the company’s rate case from last year, which the company described as a 4.5 percent increase for the average residential customer that would add about $6 a month to bills. Many customers have complained the increases penciled out to more, and following a citizens’ petition, the commission will now have a hearing to determine whether the case should be reopened.
“The commission’s own staff … said rates should either go down or at least stay the same,” Mundell said. “Now we are seeing the increases go up 10, 20, 30 percent.”
Sears said she supports a rehearing in the case.
“I am here to protect ratepayers,” Sears said.
Mundell and Kennedy also pledge that, if elected, their first act would be to sign a subpoena, along with Burns, to force APS’ parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp. to produce documentation detailing its political spending.
Kennedy lost an election in 2014 when APS is believed to have spent more than $3 million on the commission elections to help Republicans Tom Forese and Doug Little win.
APS officials don’t deny the participation through “dark money” groups that don’t disclose donors, but the company does report that it spent even more two years ago to help Republicans win, when Mundell was running as a Democrat.
Sears also criticized the utility’s campaign spending.
“I don’t believe any regulated utility should be investing in elections,” Sears said.
Mundell and Kennedy, however, attacked Sears because her campaign treasurer worked for more than 30 years at APS. They said the relationship creates the perception of bias for Sears.
Sears said her treasurer resigned from the utility, and that her intent is to help get Democrats elected.
“So I have no ties to APS and I’m working for the ratepayers,” Sears said.
Mundell disagreed, saying commissioners should not even have a hint of conflict of interest.
“It is a lack of judgment,” he said. “The commissioners are like judges. They are not like legislators or mayors. There is a difference.”
The candidates also had a brief, odd dispute over Sears’ ideas about water policy.
Sears suggested the Corporation Commission work with the Arizona Department of Water Resources to reduce the amount of water used in the state to grow alfalfa that is exported to Saudi Arabia and China.
“It is export of our water,” Sears said.
Kennedy and Mundell said such regulation was not in the commission’s power.
“Unfortunately, the commission does not regulate alfalfa,” Kennedy said.
“The commission does not have jurisdiction to regulate farmers and tell them how to use their water,” he said.
Mundell said the commission can, when granting water utilities their license to operate, limit the number of artificial lakes, fountains and landscaping the water can be used for and also can structure rates to encourage water conservation by penalizing high users.
Sears disagreed and said commissioners could at least try to address the issue byworking with the water-resources agency.
“Policies need to be updated,” she said.
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