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Conservation group to spend $2.8 M to sway Corp Comm vote

A woman arrives to her polling station, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. Elections officials say 62 polling locations in the Phoenix area weren't operational when voting began in Arizona's primary. (AP Photo/Matt York)

If money is speech, the state’s largest electric utility is not going to have the only voice this year in trying to affect who gets elected to the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Chispa Arizona is launching a $2.8 million television ad buy Thursday in its bid to get support for Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears. And the organization, an affiliate of the national League of Conservation Voters, also is planning some radio and Internet advertising aimed largely at the state’s Latino community.

The move comes as Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona Public Service, already has put $3.2 million into an account specifically to influence elections.

To date, that committee operating under the banner of Arizonans for Sustainable Energy Policy, has not made contributions to individual candidates. But it has doled out $300,000 to the Arizona Republican Party to support its slate.

That still leaves the committee with nearly $2.6 million for a last-minute ad blitz.

Matthew Benson, spokesman for the Pinnacle West-funded group, declined to say Wednesday how that cash would be spent.

“We don’t have any campaign plans to announce at this time,” he said.

And APS spokesman Alan Bunnell declined to say if the company intends to spend money in other ways to influence the commission race.

“We don’t disclose our political strategies,” he said.

Bunnell said the company has promised to disclose all political funding in its annual report. That, however, does not come out until next spring.

But Laura Dent, executive director of the Chispa Arizona political action committee, said her organization sees no need to wait and see what APS is going to do. She pointed out the utility has a record of trying to elect regulators it believes will give it favorable treatment.

Two years ago it spent $4.2 million to ensure that the commission remained an all-Republican affair. And the company will neither confirm nor deny it was the source of $3.2 million spent by two groups, that aren’t required to disclose donors, to elect Republicans in 2014.

“For too long the Corporation Commission has been under the influence of the largest private utility in the state that it’s supposed to regulate,” she said. “I think it’s a moral hazard that the state’s largest utility, which is a private monopoly with 1.2 million captive audience members as customers is the dominant voice in the election of its own regulators.”

A key purpose behind the commercial is to help break the stranglehold the GOP has had on the five-member commission since the 2012 election. It has been the outside spending that has helped keep that unilateral control in place.

Dent wants voters to oust incumbent Justin Olson who was appointed to the panel last year by Gov. Doug Ducey, and defeat attorney Rodney Glassman, the other GOP contender for the two four-year terms up for grabs this year.

Dent said that Chispa, which focuses on environmental issues particularly from the viewpoint of the Hispanic community, believes that Sears and Kennedy will be better choices.

“Latinos are disproportionately affected by climate change,” she said, with Hispanics paying a larger percentage of their income in energy costs. Then there’s the number of Latinos who work outside in agricultural and construction jobs and are exposed to higher temperatures.

“And Latinos are more likely to live in areas with high pollution and they have higher rates of asthma,” she said.

But Dent said the TV commercials, coupled with the online and radio campaign, has another purpose: informing voters of exactly what the Arizona Corporation Commission is and does.

“There’s still a lot of Arizona residents out there that don’t know what this corporation (commission) does, and doing that in a really accessible way,” she said.

Dent said the League of Conservation Voters is the largest’ contributor, though she would not disclose what percentage of the money it is providing.

Alyssa Roberts, a spokeswoman for that organization, said the cash is part of more than $60 million the  LCV Victory Fund and its state partners are spending this year, including $25 million to affect state races.

Asked about the source of the dollars, Roberts cited reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

The most recent filing shows billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City, as the largest contributor at $2 million. Bloomberg recently reregistered as a Democrat, leading to speculation he is looking at a 2020 presidential bid.

Earlier this month Bloomberg pledged $1 million to back an initiative in the state of Washington to charge large polluters an escalating fee on fossil fuel emissions.

The funding to help Sears and Kennedy is on top of $250,000 that California billionaire Tom Steyer is spending on their behalf. He is the source of virtually all of the funds being spent to promote Proposition 127 which would mandate half of electricity in Arizona come from renewable sources by 2030, a measure opposed by APS.

But Dent said that neither Steyer nor any of his political committees are funding this $2.8 million campaign, directly or indirectly.

 

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