It started as a classic legislative battle, pitting a power company with multinational ties against grassroots citizen activists.
The two were on opposite sides of a bill aimed at streamlining approvals of interstate power lines.
In the end, however, the bill died last week in large part because the citizen activists landed two powerful allies: the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation and Arizona Cattle Growers Association. Those groups' last-minute emails to House members - sent barely an hour before the final vote - got credit from both sides of the debate for sinking SB 1517.
The farm bureau and cattle growers sided with environmental groups, with whom they often are at loggerheads, such as the Sierra Club, as well as grass-roots activists in rural communities such as the Cascabel Working Group north of Benson and residents in Picture Rocks northwest of Tucson.
The bill would have allowed the Arizona Corporation Commission to exclude its line-siting committee from review of proposed interstate power lines through Arizona. Today, that committee makes recommendations to the commission on major power lines.
Supporters pushed the bill as a regulatory reform of what they saw as time-consuming, duplicative state-federal reviews because the feds also must approve interstate lines. Opponents saw it as an attack on local public input.
After being approved in a Republican-Democratic party line vote in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month, the bill lost 40-14 Monday in the House Committee of the Whole, with 23 Republicans joining 17 Democrats against it.
Rep. Peggy Judd, a Willcox Republican who helped line up the farmers and ranchers' opposition, said the farm bureau and cattle growers have a lot of sway with both parties because although they are generally conservative, they are nonpartisan groups.
"Owning a farm is not a Republican or Democrat thing," Judd said.
At the center of most of the debate was the 460-mile-long proposed SunZia power line. A lobbyist for the company proposing it, Stan Barnes, had requested that the bill be written and had lobbied hard for it.
SunZia would deliver power from wind farms and other renewable energy sources in two extra-high voltage powerlines running from southern New Mexico across Southern Arizona. The Phoenix-based Southwestern Power Group has pitched SunZia as a way to bring isolated renewable power sources to market. Its parent company, MMR of Baton Rouge, La., works in instrumentation, electrical construction and maintenance and technical services for oil, power, chemical and manufacturing companies around the world.
But SunZia has drawn opposition because various alternatives would run through Tucson, the Avra Valley, the Lower San Pedro River Valley and near the Aravaipa Canyon wilderness.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande, said the bill became controversial in part because it became identified with SunZia. Rep. Daniel Patterson, a Tucson Democrat, called the vote "a pretty big in-your-face statement to the lobbyist and corporation that were pushing this."
But in emails to the Star, cattle growers and farm bureau officials said SunZia wasn't their main concern. The groups cited broader issues, such as local control and property rights.
A particularly controversial provision would have required the Corporation Commission to OK whatever power line route the federal government preferred. It was seen as giving the feds too much power, although the bill's sponsor modified it at the last minute.
"Our opposition was based around protecting local control of line siting," said Philip Bashaw, the farm bureau's government relations manager. He said the siting committee - which has an agricultural representative - "is an effective tool at ensuring current cultural uses are taken into account when high voltage power lines are planned for in Arizona."
In an email last Monday to legislators, cattle growers lobbyist Bas Aja called the bill "an affront to property rights."
In an interview, sponsor Pratt said that although SunZia lobbyist Barnes had approached Pratt about writing this bill, it was supposed to be a broader measure that would not impact the SunZia project because the company has already started the approval process for its project. He guessed the company might want the bill to help it for future line proposals.
An opponent of the bill and the SunZia project, Anna Lands of the Cascabel Working Group, was skeptical of Pratt's statement.
"Why would SunZia go to the trouble of initiating the bill and having (Barnes) trying to put it through the way they did if there was not going to be some benefit?" said Lands, one of up to 70 members of the group who worked to kill the bill.
Southwestern Power Group hasn't yet applied to the state for a certificate to build the line, but it does have an application pending with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Barnes and SunZia spokesman Ian Calkins couldn't be reached for comment.
Lands, who has a lot of farmer and rancher friends and neighbors, said "you bet" she is grateful that agricultural lobbyists helped torpedo this bill.
"It's the ranchers and farmers who are holding the open space," she said. "I feel they are doing Arizona a tremendous service just by ranching and farming."
"It's the ranchers and farmers who are holding the open space. I feel they are doing Arizona a tremendous service just by ranching and farming."
Cascabel Working Group
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.