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House panel votes to overhaul ACC qualifications

A House panel voted Tuesday to give Arizonans fewer choices for who gets to set the rates they are charged by their utilities. 

The measure crafted by Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, would require candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission to be at least 30 years old and have been a state resident for two or more years. 

But the real heart of HB2536 would disqualify anyone from running in 2024 and beyond unless they have at least five years experience in specified areas. These include accounting, business administration, finance, administrative law or professional engineering. 

“This is a highly technical job,” said Griffin who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water. She told colleagues that the qualifications were “suggested” to her, though she denied that they came from the utilities the commission regulates. 

But Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, which appears at the commission to talk about environmental implications of its decision, suggested that the requirements were drawn so narrow as to eliminate people who have a legitimate role in setting energy policy and rates. 

For example, she told lawmakers that if they are looking for qualifications they should also consider those who have training in water or energy policy. 

“Why not a background in climate science or a consumer advocate?” Bahr said. 

And she scoffed at the idea that the work done and the policies set at the five-member commission is any more technical than the work done at the Capitol. 

“You don’t require legislators to have any qualifications,” Bahr said. 

 “You all deal with a broad range of technical issues,” she continued. “You don’t have to have a background in education, in environment, in any of those things.” 

The whole idea also drew derision from Kris Mayes who served as a Republican commissioner from 2003 through 2010 and was instrumental in adopting clean-energy requirements for utilities. 

“This is an attempt to prevent Arizonans from voting for strong consumer advocates,” Mayes, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, told Capitol Media Services. Mayes, now running for attorney general as a Democrat, called it a “pro-utility, anti-consumer” measure. 

And while it was only the Republicans on the committee who voted for HB2536, its effects would appear to be bipartisan. 

Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, said had this been in law, a whole list of Republicans who served on the commission also would not ever have been qualified to run. 

For example, he said that Republican Mike Gleason, who chaired the commission, got his bachelor’s degree in forestry. 

“Gary Pierce?” Cano continued. “He was a car dealership manager.” 

And Bob Stump’s background included being a journalist and freelance writer for newspapers. 

Bahr also pointed out that attorney Marc Spitzer served on the Corporation Commission until 2006 when he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 

“But with this in place, (he) wouldn’t be qualified to serve on the commission here because, well, he’s just a lawyer,” she said. 

Bahr said that individual expertise in technical issues isn’t necessary for commissioners, just as it is not necessary for legislators, as both have access to highly qualified staff to provide that expertise. 

That, however, didn’t convince Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who is running for secretary of state, a position that does not have any specific qualifications. 

“We rely a little too much on staff and not enough on unique qualifications of individuals who are uniquely certified, uniquely prepared, uniquely educated for various roles in leadership,” he said. And Finchem said that is particularly true at the Corporation Commission with “an increasingly technologically challenged energy environment.” 

Cano, however, said the measure, which now requires approval of the full House, is overly restrictive. 

“We should be expanding voter choice and we should be allowing a wide range of candidates to be able to be on the stage and have that ability to convince voters that they can handle energy policy,” he said. 

This isn’t Griffin’s first dispute with utility regulators and, more to the point, with the decisions they have made. 

Last year she sponsored unsuccessful legislation to strip the commission of its power to set energy policy for utilities. 

That followed the commissioners decision to propose that half of the state’s energy be generated from carbon-free sources and that power be totally carbon-free by 2050. Griffin said the panel should have considered what she said are lower-cost alternatives like coal and gas-fired power plants. 

Just this past week, however, the three Republicans on the commission quashed the clean-energy rules. 

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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