State lawmakers agreed Monday to alter state law so the newest member of the Arizona Corporation Commission can vote on pending electric rate cases.
But this is not the last word.
HB 2123 specifically would allow Andy Tobin to participate in debates and vote on requests by power companies to increase charges to customers who generate some of their own power through rooftop solar units. The electric companies contend they are not paying their fair share of fixed costs.
As approved, it redefines the statutes so that the fact that Tobin’s vote could affect employment of his son-in-law would no longer be an illegal conflict of interest.
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said the measure is no big deal.
He pointed out that the employment of a family member is considered only a “remote” conflict of interest which does not preclude a state legislator from voting on an issue. Allen said all this does is extend the same standard to the five-member commission.
But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, chided his colleagues for using a standard for a 60-member House and 30-member Senate for a five-member board.
“We are completely different animals,” he said.
Farnsworth, however, agreed to provide the margin of victory to push the measure out of the House after Allen promised to make changes when it goes to the Senate.
Allen insisted after Monday’s vote there’s nothing particularly wrong with the language he brought to the House floor. But he conceded that changes are necessary to get final approval.
What he does not know is exactly what he will alter.
The problem is so-called “net metering,” where utilities are required to purchase the power generated by customers with solar cells.
Utilities want to reduce what they are required to pay or eliminate the requirement entirely. And they also are proposing “peak demand” charges for their solar customers, charges they say ensure that everyone pays a fair share of maintaining the electric grid.
Tobin’s son-in-law is an inventory control specialist for SolarCity, a firm that manufactures and installs solar units. SolarCity also has taken an active role in opposing utility efforts to change the system.
More to the point, when Nevada utility regulators adopted changes sought by utilities in that state, SolarCity laid off workers. That raises the question of whether a similar decision by the commission here would endanger the job of Tobin’s son-in-law.
Based on that concern, a commission attorney told Tobin he could not vote on any matters involving SolarCity.
Allen’s crafted changes would say that situations like Tobin finds himself are a “remote” conflict of interest which would not require him to abstain. Allen said that’s the same standard used by legislators in deciding whether they can vote on legislation.
“We all are members of a community and we all have interests,” he said. Allen said that’s why “you elect people of high moral standards.”
And he said that, in situations like this, “that’s up to the individual to decide.”
“It’s ridiculous to think that someone would be so easily compromised,” Allen said.
Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, acknowledged that lawmakers use a standards that there is no conflict — and no requirement to abstain from voting — if someone is only one member of a “class” who is affected. Using that standard, any legislator who has a relative simply employed by a solar company could vote on issues affecting that industry.
But Alston said what the commission does is far different, deciding how much utilities can charge and who pays.
“The corporation commission has immense power,” she told colleagues.
“Because of that, they have a higher standard of conflict than legislators,” she continued. “And their standards are more like judges because, in many ways, they are judges.”
That’s also the way Farnsworth sees the issue.
He said the Legislature has 90 members, with powers split between the House and Senate. By contrast, one member of the commission wields 20 percent of the vote — and can be the deciding vote in a 2-2 tie.
A former House speaker, Tobin was named to the commission by Gov. Doug Ducey in January after Susan Bitter Smith resigned in the face of charges that her outside jobs created an illegal conflict of interest. Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato has said his boss stands behind the appointment.
Tobin testified on the measure when it was approved by a House panel, the vote that cleared the way for Monday’s vote of the full House.