A race that usually attracts minimal voter interest is taking on new significance this election year as energy issues rise to the top of public concerns.
Twelve candidates are running for three open seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, whose authority touches on utility rates, renewable energy, global warming, power plant and transmission line locations, plus railroad safety and securities enforcement thrown in for good measure.
Political control of the five-member commission is also at stake this year. Republicans have controlled the panel — the fourth branch of state government — for the past 16 years, and Democrats hope to break that grip this year. But they will have to win all three seats to do it.
Three GOP incumbents — Chairman Mike Gleason, Jeff Hatch-Miller and Bill Mundell — are prevented by term limits from running for re-election. Kris Mayes and Gary Pierce — both Republicans — will remain on the commission and will be joined by the newcomers in January.
Four Democrats and eight Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination in the Sept. 2 primary, with the top three vote-getters from each party advancing to the general election.
To try to sell themselves to the voters and differentiate themselves from the crowd, several of the contenders are running as teams. Democrats Sam George, Sam Kennedy and Paul Newman are running as the solar team — promising to harness Arizona’s abundant sunshine to reduce burning of fossil fuels, promote energy independence and generate new jobs.
Three Republican state representatives — Marian McClure (Tucson), Bob Robson (Chandler) and Bob Stump (Peoria) — are running as a team touting their experience in politics and state government to protect the interests of ratepayers in utility rate cases. Three other Republicans — Rick Fowlkes, Joseph Hobbs and Keith Swapp — are running as a conservative team with the technical expertise to understand the complex issues facing the commission. They are opposed to mandates requiring renewable energy.
Democrat Kara Kelty, a member of the Flagstaff City Council, and Republicans Barry Wong, a former member of the corporation commission, and John Allen, a former state legislator, are running outside of team alliances.
Renewable energy has been a central issue in the campaign. In 2006 the commission mandated that regulated Arizona electric utilities obtain 15 percent of their power from alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal by 2025. The commission authorized Arizona Public Service to add a $1.32 monthly surcharge to residential customers’ monthly bills to pay for the added cost.
That mandate is being legally challenged by the Goldwater Institute as being beyond the commission’s constitutional authority, and it has become the most contentious issue in the campaign. Fowlkes, Hobbs and Swapp say they will repeal the requirement if elected. They argue the mandate will cost utility customers hundreds of millions of dollars in higher rates, and the first job of the commission should be to keep utility rates as low as possible.
They say the free market should determine when alternative energy becomes economically viable.
Allen takes a similar view, saying renewable technologies are not yet ready for the market.
All of the Democrats support the mandate, with Kelty saying it should be expanded to 20 percent by 2020. All of the members of the solar team support the mandate as is, although George said the 15 percent goal should be reached sooner than 2025, if possible.
Among the Republicans, Wong voted to implement the measure when he was a member of the commission, and he still supports it as a catalyst to development of clean renewables.
The three members of the GOP legislature team are lukewarm at best. McClure said she would not vote to change it now, although she might not have voted for it originally if she had been on the commission. In general she said she doesn’t like mandates.
Robson said the standards should remain in place, if they can be met. He said only time will tell if they are achievable.
Stump said the standard should be viewed more as a goal than an inflexible requirement. He added the state also should consider nuclear energy as an alternative energy source.
APS SEEKS RATE HIKE
One of the first issues the new commission will face after taking office in January will be a rate increase request from Arizona Public Service. The company is seeking an 8.5 percent, $265 million rate increase — mostly to pay for electric system infrastructure to serve the increasing number of customers in its service territory. The company also is seeking an interim increase of $115 million by November from the current commission, but the new panel will make a final decision on whether to maintain whatever is approved by the incumbents.
Also the commission is likely to become involved in the Western Climate Initiative, an effort by Western governors including Gov. Janet Napolitano to control greenhouse gas emissions by instituting a “cap-and-trade” system for carbon-dioxide credits. Many of the candidates believe the commission should be involved in planning and implementing the system because it regulates the fossil-fuel-burning generators that are a major source of greenhouse gases.
So far the governor has resisted giving the commission or the Arizona Legislature an advice and consent role.
Among other facts about the candidates:
• George has been a political activist on numerous issues including medical use of marijuana, campaign reform, and the environment. He has co-authored a book called “The Great Divide” that “demonstrates how politicians from Red Republican states block energy reform in Washington.”
• The Fowlkes-Hobbs-Swapp Web site includes their positions on conservative issues not related to the corporation commission. The group opposes public benefits for those in this country illegally, supports employer sanctions, is pro-life and opposes restrictions on Second Amendment gun rights.
• Newman, from Bisbee, has emphasized his southern Arizona residence, noting there has not been a commissioner from southern Arizona in more than two decades.
• Wong served previously on the commission for five months in 2006 when he was appointed by Napolitano to fill out the unexpired term of Marc Spitzer, who was appointed by President Bush to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.