A bill aimed at streamlining approvals for new interstate power lines in Arizona will see some changes before going to the House floor for a vote, its sponsor said.
The bill's sponsor, Casa Grande Republican Rep. Frank Pratt, said he is working behind the scenes with various interest groups to "try to make the bill what we want it to be." One likely change would be to require at least one hearing for a new line under any circumstances -- which isn't required in the current bill.
Democratic legislators, however, say that a one-hearing requirement is not enough to fix the bill, and they are skeptical that enough changes will be made on the floor. They've been joined by one House Republican who says she's changed her mind after voting for the bill in committee.
The bill is aimed at helping proposals make it through what power line advocates say is a long, difficult process before state and federal governments. The bill is opposed by a long list of community groups and other activists who say it will limit the public's say over such proposals, which they fear will destroy wildlife habitat, wreck views and damage neighborhoods. The centerpiece of the debate has been over the proposed 480-mile-long SunZia line that would take power from southern New Mexico across Southern Arizona before ending in Casa Grande.
The bill would give the Arizona Corporation Commission the choice of handling a proposed interstate power line by itself, or also putting the line through a more thorough and time-consuming review by the commission's Line Siting Committee, an advisory body.
Currently, the siting committee must be involved in all significant power line proposals before the state. At least one hearing or public meeting is required before both the commission and the committee before a power line can be cleared for approval.
The House Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill by a 5-3, Republican-Democratic, party line vote on March 21st. Pratt said he hopes to take the bill to the floor in the next few weeks.
Pratt said he is talking with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, SunZia lobbyist Stan Barnes, the Cascabel Working Group, a volunteer group in the Cascabel area along the San Pedro River north of Benson, and with representatives of state natural resource conservation districts about possible changes. Pratt described the bill as a work in progress. If the House approves it, the Senate would take it up next.
Pratt said he introduced the bill at the request of SunZia, although he said he intended that the streamlined process mainly be used for much less controversial proposals.
"It is such a long process -- anything we can do to try to reform the process is what we are trying to examine," Pratt said.
Peggy Judd, a Republican committee member from Cochise County, said she decided to switch from "yes" to "no" two hours after the committee cleared the bill.
"In that hearing room, I believed they could fix it. When I went back to my office and I read the list of things that would have to be covered in an amendment -- those issues were already covered by the line sighting committee," said Judd, whose district includes areas such as Cascabel and Picture Rocks where opposition to the ?SunZia line is high. "If they have to change the bill that much, they ought to use the line sighting committee."
Democratic representatives Daniel Patterson and Bruce Wheeler of Tucson said they've heard promises in the past that controversial bills would be fixed on the floor -- but they often aren't.
"I don't think the bill can be amended in a way that protects the public interest," Patterson said. "I had an amendment in committee that changed one word in the bill from saying that it may to it shall require a public hearing. Republicans voted against it in committee. That's a bad sign."
Wheeler said, "To have just one meeting is not sufficient. There's traditionally several public hearings and the bottom line is that this bill diminishes public input."