Burns, Tobin leading in ACC election

November 10, 2016 GMT

PHOENIX -- The state’s largest electric company is going to get at least one of the utility regulators it wants for the $4 million it spent on the campaign for Arizona Corporation Commission.

And probably a second.

Preliminary results show incumbent Bob Burns winning a second four-year term. Burns was supported for reelection by Pinnacle West Capital Corp., parent of Arizona Public Service, which put $4 million into TV commercials and other media to ensure that the commission remains an all-Republican affair.

Incumbent Republican Andy Tobin, also supported by Pinnacle West, was running second among the five contenders. But remained unclear late Tuesday whether all that spending would also mean the utility would be successful in replacing retiring commissioner Bob Stump with Boyd Dunn, the third Republican in the race and also backed by Pinnacle West.

It didn’t hurt Burns that he also was the beneficiary of some of the $2.4 million that Save Our AZ Solar put into the race on his behalf as well as Democrat challenger Bill Mundell. While Pinnacle West got behind Burns financially, Kris Mayes who is running the Save Our AZ Solar campaign, said both he and Mundell have been consistent supporters of solar energy.

Left out in the financial cold in all of this heavy spending was Tom Chabin, the other Democrat running for one of the three seats up for grabs.

SolarCity itself spent $41,000 on his behalf along with Mundell and Burns in mailings to the company’s customers. But Chabin was not part of the bigger ad campaign by Save Our AZ Solar, with only a late-in-the-campaign $1,200 expenditure for signs.

Mayes said that with less money to spend than Pinnacle West, it came down to a question of priorities.

"We wanted to be sure to support two very pro-solar and pro-consumer advocates for the Corporation Commission,″ she said. And there’s also the fact that both have a record: Mundell with his prior service on the panel and Burns who was first elected to the commission four years ago.

All that support by both sides for Burns appeared to be paying off: Preliminary results showed him in the lead in the five-way race for the three available seats. The vote tallies among the rest of the field, however, were too close to each other to make predictions.

That question of who are the pro-solar and pro-consumer candidates got muddled during the extensive campaign.

The Pinnacle West-financed TV ads promoted Burns, Dunn and Tobin as "Arizona’s sustainable solar team,″ complete with pictures of commercial-scale solar power collectors. And it says the trio will represent Arizona taxpayers, not out-of-state special interests,″ a slap at California-based SolarCity.

But the truth of it all comes down to the more difficult question of balancing the goal of diversifying the state’s sources of energy with the costs.

Most directly at issue is that customers who generate their own rooftop power get a credit for anything they do not need and sell to the utility. That is a credit at retail rates.

Then, on an annual basis, all accumulated excess credits are paid off in cash, albeit at a lower wholesale rate.

All Arizona utilities contend that essentially requires the customers who cannot afford rooftop solar to pick up more than their fair share of the cost of building and operating the grid. They want a change in the reimbursement formula.

Mundell and Chabin, for their part, argue that any electricity produced by homeowners means less need for utilities to build expensive power plants and then charge customers for their construction.

Utility policy aside, the race has featured echoes of what happened in 2014 when two organizations that refuse to disclose donors spent $3.2 million to help elect Republicans Tom Forese and Doug Little.

An APS spokesman has refused to confirm or deny that his company or its parent was the source of that cash. And the FBI has opened a probe into the 2014 race, though it remains unclear whether the "dark money″ is at the center of that or some activities by a now-retired commissioner.

Burns, in turn, has subpoenaed the records of both companies. They have produced some already public documents but have turned around and sued Burns to block any further efforts to get into their books.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich has issued an opinion saying that Burns is entitled to certain records from APS as a regulated utility. But he said it will take the votes of three of the five commissioners to get at the books of Pinnacle West, votes that, date, Burns has been unable to get.

Mundell and Chabin have vowed to provide those votes if elected.

Pinnacle West backed Burns despite the subpoenas. Company CEO Don Brandt has said he finds Burns preferable to either of the Democrats, contending that their statements during the campaign show they cannot be trusted to be fair.

The new commission will be the one to review a request by APS for an 8 percent rate hike as well as rate requests by other Arizona utilities.