Arizona names head regulator critical of APS political influence
- The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) unanimously elected Republican Commissioner Robert Burns as its new chairman on Monday.
- Burns was at the center of legal battles over the campaign funding disclosures for Arizona Public Service (APS) in 2014 and has questioned the utility's rate hikes.
- The new chairman may now have the votes to force campaign spending disclosures, AZ Central reported. Two new commissioners were sworn in on Monday, including Democrat Sandra Kennedy who pledged in her campaign to fight corruption and "stop unjust rate increases."
The election of Burns puts a consistent utility critic at the helm of the Arizona commission — a state that's seen a string of political controversies and solar policy battles involving APS.
In 2016, Burns issued a subpoena to APS, attempting to determine whether the utility and its parent company Pinnacle West funded groups supporting 2014 election campaigns for the commission using ratepayer money.
His political influence inquiry was rejected by the ACC 3-1, earning Burns criticism from then-Chairman Doug Little. Burns went ahead to subpoena financial records on his own to determine the political influence over his fellow commissioners, and he remains involved in court regarding the case.
Burns will be filing with the Appellate Court to appeal the latest Superior Court action, he told Utility Dive.
Regarding Commissioner Kennedy’s support for a possibly inquiry on political spending, "we're going to have some meeting to try to see where everybody's at, and that's kind of immediate action that needs to be taken," Burns said.
APS and Pinnacle West spent a record amount of funds to oppose a ballot initiative during the 2018 midterms election that sought to mandate the investment in renewable energy. The ballot measure failed in November.
Beyond all the work currently in the ACC pipeline, Burns wants the commission to focus on how to manage the peak energy use.
“The peak is an issue that is being used as a reason for establishing the rate design that we have in place right now. That rate design is very complicated and … I think it's the reason that we ended up with this formal complaint against APS,” Burns said of the September complaint filed by ratepayers regarding a newly proposed rate hike.
Burns has also been critical of APS rate increase requests. In 2017, ACC approved by a 4-1 vote a rate hike to APS' 1.2 million customers, which Burns tried to overturn, alleging that the $95 million annual increase was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court rejected that bid, but hearings continued last fall to reconsider the rate hike.
Burns wants the ACC to "start looking at the issue of possible retail purchases of electricity by customers," an issue he supported when first elected to the commission in 2013. Last year, Burns was one of three commissioners to ask the commission to explore possible deregulation of retail electric competition, according to the Arizona Capitol Times.
"On behalf of our customers, APS is committed to working productively with Chairman Burns and all of the ACC Commissioners to deliver clean, affordable and reliable power," according to a statement released by the utility. "We are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with stakeholders on setting responsible energy plans and policies for our state."
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