An 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.
Senator David Gowan, a Republican whose district is in southern Arizona, introduced the proposed constitutional amendment in a resolution, SCR 1048, in the Senate. Representative Ben Toma, a Republican whose district is in the northwest Valley, introduced a companion resolution in the House.
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.
“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.
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.”
Commissioner Justin Olson, a Republican who was appointed by Governor Doug Ducey in 2017 and was elected the following year, declined to take a stance, saying that “it’s an appropriate question to put before the voters and see what they decide.”
He said he appreciated the “direct accountability to the voters” of having elected regulators, but that he could also see the upsides to appointees. With appointed regulators, “the commission will be more of a body of experts rather than a political body,” he said.
The other two commissioners, Lea Marquez Peterson and Boyd Dunn, did not respond to requests for comment.
Nick Debus, a spokesperson for the Commission, said the Corporation Commission had no comment on the proposal.
In a 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.”
A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.