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Budget process brings more discord among utility regulators

Bob Burns explains why he was the lone vote against selecting Tom Forese as new chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Bob Burns explains why he was the lone vote against selecting Tom Forese as new chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Using money saved in part when the Arizona Corporation Commission got rid of an ethics attorney, the agency is now giving extra money to some commissioners to lead workshops on special issues.

And the idea of budgeting additional money for newly created committees, which the commission did not have before, led Commissioner Bob Burns to dissent from the commission’s budget request, a rare move meant to register his discontent with the program.

The committees were created by Chairman Tom Forese in March and doled out to Commissioners Andy Tobin, Boyd Dunn and Doug Little. Burns does not have a committee, and neither does Forese.

Each committee will get an additional $20,000 to spend on things like research, staffing or travel needs, said commission spokeswoman Holly Ward. The committees are considered a “pilot program” for budgeting purposes, and the amount will not exceed $100,000 for next fiscal year, she said.

There was also some money spent this year for the committees, she said, including an intern for Tobin’s water committee and some travel costs to go to rural areas, also for the water committee.

Little, however, told the Arizona Capitol Times he never held any meetings for his committee and didn’t spend any money it.

Burns said in his dissent letter, attached to the budget request sent to the Ducey administration, that this is the first time in his five years as a commissioner that he has dissented from a budget request.

Agencies send requests for spending to the Governor’s Office each fall, jockeying for limited available funds. Burns wrote that the funding for the committees is coming from “vacancy savings,” meaning money the commission hasn’t spent to fill vacant positions.

One of those positions left vacant, resulting in savings, is a legal counsel hired in 2015 to handle ethics issues and public records requests, Ward said. When the commission hired a new legal counsel, Andy Kvesic, he streamlined his team and is now doing records requests himself, so the position is no longer needed, Ward said.

But Burns believes these new committees don’t need additional money, and the money in question should go toward its intended purpose, paying for salaries. Burns notes in his dissent that his office coordinated seven workshops with more than 70 presenters a couple years ago without any additional funding.

“The perception is that this $100,000 will go to commissioners who support Chairman Forese’s agenda,” Burns alleges, adding that the commissioners who have committees are the ones who now routinely vote with Forese.

“It creates an appearance of a carrot and a stick model that can be used as leverage against members of the commission who ‘fall out of line’ with the commission chairman,” Burns wrote.

Burns also questioned the existence of the committees in general, saying they make the commission more like the Legislature, which “is a deviation from the Arizona Constitution.” The commission is supposed to be a fourth branch of government unlike the other three, and the committees centralize power in the chairman’s hands, Burns wrote.

Burns told the Arizona Capitol Times he dissented from the budget request because he didn’t know what other route he could take to say he disagreed with the committee spending.

“This whole thing of setting up committees is a farce, in my opinion,” Burns said.

Forese and Tobin want to make the commission more like the Legislature, and the committees serve that purpose, Burns said, adding that they’re being used similarly to the way the Legislature uses committee placements to gain leverage or punish people. He equated the committee system to a “chairman’s slush fund.”

“Guess who doesn’t have one?” Burns said.

Forese knocked down Burns’ claims that the committees centralize power, saying instead they are intended to give commissioners a way to go deeper into issues and become experts. Forese said there are a number of positions that won’t be filled at the commission, and the commission is looking for other ways to adopt “lean measures” the Ducey administration has prioritized.

And while it’s true that Burns doesn’t have a committee, Forese said he’s open to giving him one.

“He’s never asked me for one. We’ve never discussed it,” Forese said.

As far as making the commission more like the Legislature, Forese said that’s the whole point of the committees. He found the legislative committee process better for public interaction and deep discussion. In the past, commission chairmen have used their positions to dominate on key issues, and Forese wants to instead defer to other commissioners to lead on specific topics.

The budget request dissent falls into a pattern of disagreement between Forese and Burns, who have repeatedly clashed over Burns’ interest in disclosing election spending on Forese and Little’s 2014 race.

“If I signed a birthday card, Bob Burns would dissent,” Forese said.

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