Steller: APS' shady behavior sullies commission campaign

2014-08-05T20:30:00Z 2014-08-06T09:51:36Z Steller: APS' shady behavior sullies commission campaignTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

It wasn’t a denial.

It wasn’t even a non-denial denial.

It was basically just a non-denial, which is pretty close to a confirmation.

After a month of criticism in the Phoenix media that Arizona Public Service is secretly spending money on statewide elections, an APS company spokesman noted first in a written statement Sunday that the company is being attacked by outside groups in a “propaganda war.”

Alan Bunnell continued: “It would be irresponsible for us not to defend our company, which plays a critical role powering Arizona’s economy and supporting our communities. No one disputes our right to participate in the political process, although some have voiced the opinion we should not exercise that right.”

Adding to the evidence: Last year, APS acknowledged contributing to third-party political groups that then engaged in a proxy fight over fees for rooftop solar panels.

From that, it seems evident that APS, Arizona’s largest electric utility, or its parent company are funding an effort to win the Republican nominations for their preferred candidates for Arizona Corporation Commission, Tom Forese and Doug Little.

That may not seem such a big deal in this post-Citizens-United era, in which corporate and union donations to campaigns are permitted and pervasive. But in fact, those who pay attention to the little-noticed five-member commission consider it unprecedented.

For the first time, one of Arizona’s utilities is trying to determine who will regulate it and, perhaps most importantly, cast votes on the rates utility customers pay, helping determine the company’s bottom line. You can imagine the thinking: A little bit of political spending now can protect profits down the road. But it’s something other utilities avoid.

The political action committee for employees of Tucson Electric Power, the other large electric utility regulated by the commission, doesn’t get involved in its campaigns: “It has been our policy not to contribute to corporation commission candidates, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest,” TEP communications manager Joe Salkowski told me.

Neither does the PAC for employees of Salt River Project involve itself with corporation commission races, even though that company is not regulated closely by the commission because it is a public utility with its own elected board.

By all appearances, APS decided it’s OK to break this barrier and, worse, to hide it.

The vehicles for this effort are two groups, as Capitol Media Services’ Howard Fischer reported Monday: The Arizona Free Enterprise Club and Save Our Future Now. Neither is required to disclose its donors.

They’ve supported Forese and Little in the corporation commission race to the tune of $331,345, and they’ve worked against Republican opponents Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason by spending $683,937 so far against Parker and $86,832 against Mason. That’s a total of $1.1 million on races where candidates typically have spent in the low six figures for the entire election.

The result? Mailers such as the one sent by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club declaring, “Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason support Obama’s energy plan.” Another, by Save Our Future Now, shows Parker, Obama and Mason standing together in an obvious blend of three separate pictures and says, “They are the environmental team that could shut down Arizona power plants.”

Of course, Bunnell is right that APS is being attacked by outside groups. Companies such as SolarCity benefit from the subsidies for homeowners who install rooftop solar panels. They’ve fought APS’ justifiable efforts to reduce those subsidies and the shifting of costs they create from solar customers to the rest of us.

The solar companies formed a group called Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, abbreviated creatively as TUSK, to galvanize Republican support for the solar industry. TUSK fought APS last year over its effort to impose new fees on rooftop solar owners, and this year, TUSK is fighting the candidates apparently favored by APS, spending $242,539 so far.

But there’s a difference: TUSK is a traditional political action committee and must disclose its donors. Jason Rose, a Scottsdale publicist who represents the group, said the vast majority of its money comes from solar companies whose donations will be disclosed in its next required filing.

Typical of groups whose business is secrecy, representatives of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club and Save Our Future Now did not return my calls.

“Among Republican primary voters, the APS position is wildly unpopular,” Rose told me. “That explains why they don’t have the guts to do it in their names.”

Jim Holway, a Democratic candidate for corporation commission, had a novel idea to address the problem. He sent a letter to chairman Bob Stump asking the commission to order the utilities they regulate to disclose all their spending on the corporation commission race. So far, they’ve refused to do so.

That’s a shame: At least, voters should know who is spending how much to sway them and whether that money could benefit the donors directly through commission decisions.

I’m sure I won’t be the only person tempted to vote Parker and Mason just to send APS and the other utilities a message.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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