PHOENIX — State lawmakers agreed Friday to alter state laws to alleviate the conflict-of-interest problems of the newest member of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
On a 32-22 margin the House approved language to effectively overrule the opinion of a commission attorney, who said Andy Tobin could not vote on certain electric rate cases if SolarCity had intervened. Tobin’s son-in-law works for the firm.
The approval came just hours after the House had killed the same measure on a 22-31 vote.
The measure now heads to Gov. Doug Ducey, who is likely to sign it.
Ducey named Tobin to the Corporation Commission, which hears rate cases for utilities including Tucson Electric Power, in January following the resignation of Susan Bitter Smith. She quit after Attorney General Mark Brnovich said her outside employment on behalf of Cox Communications and the Southwest Cable Television Association made it illegal for her to hold office.
It was subsequently learned that Mike Coomer, who is married to Tobin’s daughter, is an “inventory control specialist’’ for SolarCity.
That company is not regulated by the commission. But it has been in the middle of fights with regulated utilities over rates the commission will let them charge customers who generate their own power with rooftop solar units — units manufactured and sold by SolarCity.
When Nevada utility regulators adopted changes in rates sought by utilities there, SolarCity laid off workers. That raised the question of whether a similar decision by the Arizona commission would endanger the job of Tobin’s son-in-law.
Based on that, a commission attorney told Tobin he could not vote on any matters involving SolarCity.
There’s also the issue that Tobin’s brother works for Cox Communications. But Tobin said that’s on the side of the company that handles cable television and not its telephone service.
To fix the problem, lawmakers added language to existing laws to say it is not a conflict of interest for public officials to vote on matters involving a relative if that person works for a firm with at least 25 employees and does not have authority over the firm’s management or budget decisions.
That appears to cover both of the situations involving Tobin.
No one voting on the measure Friday detailed their opinions. Tobin previously said he believes he would still be effective on the five-member panel even if he could not vote on issues where SolarCity is involved, because the panel deals with many issues.
But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said it’s wrong to try to change the law to fit the problem. “Conflicts of interest can’t be amended away simply by changing a definition in statute or simply by running a bill and making that conflict of interest magically disappear,’’ he said.
Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, who is running for the commission this year, was excused from voting on the measure.