PHOENIX — State senators voted Wednesday to give utilities a way to avoid having to get half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030 even if voters mandate they do so.
House Bill 2005 would not directly overrule the effects of a current initiative financed by California billionaire Tom Steyer. The Clean Energy for Healthy Arizonans measure, if approved by voters, would sharply boost existing Arizona Corporation Commission rules requiring that 15 percent of all power come from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass by 2025. It would put those requirements in the Arizona Constitution, off limits to tinkering by state lawmakers unless they take the issue back to voters.
Backers have until July 5 to get at least 225,953 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue on the November ballot.
This pre-emptive legislation, meanwhile, approved on a party-line vote by the Republican-controlled Senate Government Committee, would make any violation of the constitutional provision only a civil violation.
That could allow utilities to avoid the mandate by paying a one-time fine that could be as little as $100, with a maximum of $5,000.
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr told lawmakers the utilities want this measure: They’re looking for an escape clause if voters approve the initiative.
“Everyone knows that if the cost of noncompliance is cheaper than the cost of compliance, entities will serve their shareholders, not consumers, and take the low road and pay the fines,” she said.
That led Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, to ask APS lobbyist Rod Ross whether it was the intent of the utility, which helped craft the legislation, to ignore the mandate if it is enacted by voters and simply pay the fine.
Ross did not deny that might happen. He said if APS were mandated to boost its renewable energy it would consult with lawmakers, regulators and others “and together come to a decision as to what the best course of action is to protect the state, its economy and its ratepayers.”
He told the committee that APS, which helped form a committee to fight the initiative, is not doing it out of self interest.
“We feel like it’s important to protect the people of this state from an out-of-state initiative funded by a California billionaire that is attempting to raise our state’s and our residents’ energy prices, which is exactly what this initiative will do,” Ross said.
APS is working with other utilities to form Arizonans for Affordable Electricity to fight the initiative. This escape-clause bill is also backed by Tucson Electric Power, UNS Energy and various electric cooperatives.
Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, acknowledged the initiative might get the approval of the majority of voters. But he said that does not make it fair.
“We have a responsibility to the people who elected us to protect them from economic devastation, not only in their utility bills, but this would have a massive negative effect on manufacturing and retail businesses,” Kavanagh said, calling the proposed standards “a draconian, unattainable goal.”
Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, countered: “Saying that our voters in this state may not understand or may not vote the right way when it comes to certain issues that are before them is rude,” he said.
Mendez said the bill “is nothing more than a corporation using the Legislature to absolve themselves of having to comply with clean-energy regulation and health standards.”
Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, criticized the fact that the initiative is funded by Steyer and his advocacy group, NextGen America. Steyer, a Californian, has announced he will spend $30 million to help Democrats retake the U.S. House in 2018 with one goal being impeaching President Trump.
“It’s people coming into Arizona and trying to buy Arizona laws,” Farnsworth said.
Mendez had a different take.
“We have to rely on these millionaires because you’ve made the initiative process so impossible without people having a lot of money,” he said.
The legislation goes next to the full Senate.