PHOENIX — Arizonans can’t be blocked from voting on a renewable energy proposal solely because organizers might have violated state election law, a judge ruled Tuesday.
But it remains to be seen whether the state’s largest electric company can prove some other way that the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative should be kept off the November ballot.
In an order late Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Kiley said it is possible initiative organizers did not comply with state law that requires all ballot measures to list a “sponsor” before gathering signatures.
Attorneys for Arizona Public Service, challenging the petition drive, contend that even after a sponsor was named, it was not the legally correct one. They contend petition signers should have been told up front virtually all the money for the initiative drive was coming from NextGen Climate Action, the political action committee formed by California billionaire Tom Steyer.
Kiley said none of that matters. He said if this does violate a state election law — something he is not deciding — only the Secretary of State’s Office has the legal authority to do something about it.
And the most that could happen, the judge said, is the campaign could be fined if it did not come into compliance.
That means APS and its parent Pinnacle West Capital Corp. have no legal right to try to enforce election law, Kiley said. As such, the utility has no grounds to argue that the missing or improper sponsor name is grounds to disqualify all 480,000 signatures collected, a move that would have made the initiative drive go away.
In his 17-page ruling, however, Kiley said the utility remains free to try to prove its contention that three-fourths of the signatures gathered are invalid. The utility alleges many signers were not registered to vote or that names, signatures or addresses do not match.
The judge already scheduled a five-day trial for later this month on the issue.
But Kiley said he rejected a demand by APS to have the state’s 15 county recorders do the company’s investigation.
He said the only duty of recorders is to check the 5 percent sample each gets of the total signatures submitted. Based on that sample, state election officials decide if there are at least 225,962 valid signatures on the petitions to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.
And Kiley said there is nothing in state law that requires or even authorizes county officials to perform such a line-by-line review. He said it’s up to the utility to make the case on its own, without county help, that there are insufficient valid signatures.
The initiative, if it makes the ballot and is approved, would mandate that 50 percent of electricity generated in Arizona come from renewable sources by 2030. That would override existing Arizona Corporation Commission rules which mandate only that renewable energy hit 15 percent by 2025.
Officials at APS and allies in the business community argue that such a high mandate would increase power costs, a contention disputed by initiative backers.