Claiming they’re protecting Arizonans from a California millionaire, Republican lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to legislation to allow the state’s utilities to effectively ignore any new voter-mandated requirements for renewable energy.
On paper, HB 2005 does not forbid voters from considering the Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona amendment to the state constitution. That measure would require that half of all electricity generated by most utilities to come from renewable sources by 2030.
Backers have until July 5 to get at least 225,953 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue to voters in November.
But this legislation, which Arizona Public Service admitted it helped craft, spells out that if the measure is approved, the maximum fine utilities could face for violating the provisions would be $5,000. And it could be as little as $100.
GOP lawmakers made it clear that the intent of HB 2005, which now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey, was to ensure that it would not matter if voters side with the initiative organizers.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said it is the responsibility of lawmakers to protect Arizona residents from out-of-state interests. That refers to the fact that the measure is being financed largely through NextGen America, a political advocacy group set up by California billionaire Tom Steyer.
“Take your money and go someplace else,” Leach said. “Arizona’s constitution is not for sale.”
And Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said he feared proponents would wage a campaign “based on deception and innuendo.”
That brought a sharp retort from Rep. Eric Descheenie, D-Chinle, who said the legislation is based on the premise “that voters are not intelligent enough to vote responsibly.”
“To preempt their voice is ridiculous and hypocritical,” he said.
The Arizona Corporation Commission, constitutionally empowered to regulate utility rates, already has voted to mandate that 15 percent of power come from renewable sources by 2025. There is some discussion among commissioners about not only altering that goal but changing what constitutes “renewable” to include nuclear power.
This initiative, if approved, would put that 50 percent renewable standard — without nuclear — into the Arizona Constitution. And that would preclude both commissioners and lawmakers from excusing utilities from having to comply.
The answer crafted by APS — and backed by Tucson Electric Power, UniSource Energy Services and the Grand Canyon State Electrical Coop Association — was the escape valve of allowing them to violate the constitutional requirement with minimal financial risk.
Leach said there is no reason to put a specific renewable energy goal directly into the Arizona Constitution, pointing out the existing authority of the commission to decide what’s appropriate. He also said that putting in the minimal fine “protects the state against unrealistic goals set by people that don’t live here, that have no idea what goes on here, but have sufficient funds to sway and turn the way that we live.
Rep. David Cook, D-Globe, brushed aside claims that the measure is necessary to protect public health and, in particular, people with asthma.
“As a parent with a 17-year-old daughter that has had asthma all her life, has an inhaler, it’s not caused by the energy companies,” he said. Cook said the primary cause is automobile exhaust.
Rep. Kirsten Engel chided colleagues for putting these protections for utility companies into law even before voters have a chance to decide if they want the new renewable standards.
“Before the voters even have that chance we already have the utilities saying, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter, we’re going to violate it whether you pass it or not,’ ” she said. “It really seems to make a mockery of our citizens initiative process.”
And Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said all lawmakers are doing is setting the stage for a lawsuit.
“This bill is unconstitutional,” he said, with the legislature legally unable to statutorily limit the fines for violating constitutional provisions. Clark said that isn’t just his view, pointing out a Senate staff attorney reached the same conclusion, though that did not preclude GOP lawmakers there from approving the same bill.
Clark also suggested it was hypocritical of Republicans to complain about out-of-state money seeking to affect Arizona laws, given the amount of money that is funneled into this state by Republicans with money for things like tax cuts and vouchers.