Sen. David Gowan made statewide headlines last week as the sponsor of a consent resolution that would ask voters whether members of the Arizona Corporation Commission should be appointed, rather than elected.
The ACC regulates utilities, including our own Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative. The five-member board has the authority to review rates and effectively influence the policies and procedures of electric, gas, water and telephone – landline not cellular – utilities. It’s also responsible for regulating railroad crossings, pipelines and overseeing corporations and securities.
Arizona is one of 11 states that elects its public service commissioners. Members are appointed in the other 39 states and in all but two – Virginia and South Carolina – the governor has the authority to make the appointment. Commissioners are elected by members of the General Assembly in the two states where they are not appointed by the governor.
Sen. Gowan, who was locally elected to represent our Legislative District 14, has said his sponsorship of SCR 1048 is based on conversations with voters, fellow lawmakers and candidates who have run for the Commission. He identified a “lack of faith” among constituents and argues that mounting an election campaign is costly, leaving candidates prone to accept donations from special interest groups.
We think he’s right on both counts.
“Dark money” campaign donations in 2014, later determined to be from the parent company of the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, contributed to an erosion of public confidence in the ACC.
The election of the two commissioners backed by APS, followed by the utility’s successful petition for a rate increase, led to allegations that the ACC had been “captured” by special interests and no longer served the public interests.
Raising enough money to campaign for this statewide office makes Commissioners more likely to accept donations from the same organizations the ACC is responsible to regulate. For the Nov. 3, 2020 election, eight Republicans and six Democrats are running for the three seats on the ACC, but a review of the campaign finance reports shows that none of them are doing well on the fundraising front. For a campaign that can easily cost several hundred thousand dollars, none of the leading candidates have accumulated more than $10,000.
Appointment of the commissioners may also improve the qualifications of those serving on the board. Regulating utilities is a technical job, not a political job. Appointing “technocrats” who have a fundamental understanding of the utilities they are regulating may lead to better outcomes for the public.
Sen. Gowan’s proposal deserves serious debate in the public forum and we support putting it on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.