By Howard Fischer - Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday the Arizona Corporation Commission has been getting into areas beyond its constitutional authority to set utility rates.
"There's been a bit of mission creep,'' the governor said.
Ducey's comments were most immediately about the report of the death last year of an elderly customer of Arizona Public Service whose power was turned off in the middle of summer because she only paid a part of her bill. It was not until that death became public this past month -- and it was learned that APS had shut off power last year to 110,000 customers -- that the utility agreed to temporarily suspend cutoffs.
The reports, first unveiled by Phoenix New Times, has led three commissioners to seek to revamp rules about when a utility can shut off power.
But the governor said he's not sure that the commission is the agency that, by itself, should be setting the rules.
Ducey's comments did not stop there. He also said that the commission, which is constitutionally created, may be overstepping its bounds in telling utilities how much of their power has to come from renewable energy.
Those contentions drew a surprised reaction from Bob Burns who chairs the five-member panel.
"Maybe he ought to read the constitution,'' Burns told Capitol Media Services. And he specifically rejected Ducey's contention that the question of when a utility can shut off power is an issue to be decided by the Legislature and the governor.
"We have rule-setting authority to establish rules to have utilities follow,'' said Burns. "It's part of our charge.''
The published report of APS cutting off the energy of 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman of Sun City West led to a hastily crafted statement by the utility this past week that it was suspending its cutoffs while it reviewed its policies.
Within days, Burns directed the commission staff to craft new rules about when electricity can be shut off. The panel is supposed to look at what they find on Thursday.
Burns is not alone. Both Commissioners Boyd Dunn and Justin Olston also are seeking review of the shutoff rules.
"We should be protecting our most vulnerable,'' Ducey said Monday, though he said he does not know all the facts. "But it seems as if it were avoidable.''
The governor said he would call on the commission to see "what's possible.''
"But I also think there's been a bit of a mission creep on the Corporation Commission beyond just setting rates,'' Ducey said. "And something of this level could rise to legislation or regulation to protect Arizona's most vulnerable.''
But Ducey did not stop there.
More than a decade ago the commission approved rules requiring utilities to generate at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources -- not including nuclear -- by 2025.
That occurred with some opposition from affected electric companies. And now commissioners already are talking about increasing that goal.
The governor questioned whether that's something the regulators should be doing.
"We want to see the Corporation Commission doing what their constitutional charge is,'' Ducey said. But that, he said, does not mean the elected regulators should have the last word.
"If there's other opportunities around energy regulation and policy that the Legislature and the governor's office should be involved in, we want to make certain that we're involved,'' Ducey said.
Does that mean he believes it should not be the commission setting the renewable energy standard but instead the Legislature?
"I think we can have some discussion on that front,'' the governor said.
But Burns said having the Legislature -- presumably with the governor -- setting energy policy for the state ignores the specific powers given to the commission under the Arizona Constitution.
"The commission has legislative authority as well as executive authority as well as judicial authority,'' he said. And that, said Burns, gives the commission the power to enact and enforce rules over its sphere of influence, meaning the utilities, just as if it were acting as the Legislature.
Burns has a unique perspective in seeking the division of power between the commission and the Legislature: He served as a state lawmaker for 20 years, including a term as Senate president.
The governor separately brushed aside questions about his decision last month to replace Andy Tobin on the commission.
Tobin, named to the regulatory panel by Ducey in 2015, has been increasingly critical of APS and its practices, voting against several proposals sought by the utility. That included a moratorium on building new power plans that use fossil fuels and Tobin's own proposals to increase the amount of renewable energy utilities must generate.
By naming Tobin to head the Department of Administration, that freed Ducey to tap Lea Marquez Peterson, an unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate who also had sided with APS against a 2018 renewable energy ballot measure.
Ducey told Capitol Media Services he rejects the premise that he was looking to put someone more friendly to the utility on the commission.
"We were able to put someone who is an excellent public servant (in the job), someone who led the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is respected in the business community,'' the governor said. And Ducey said he understands she is the first-ever Hispanic woman to serve in statewide office.
"And she will be a watchdog for the taxpayer,'' Ducey said.
As to the money she has taken from Pinnacle West for her losing congressional campaign, Ducey said that just shows "she's built broad support for her campaigns.''
"And I think that's a reflection people have trust in her,'' the governor said.
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