PHOENIX — Having burned through $28 million in a pair of losing political battles in Arizona last year, California billionaire Tom Steyer is prepared to pump more cash into the state.
But unlike last year, it’s not to affect the outcome of elections — except indirectly.
This time, it’s designed to tell voters about what NextGen America, Steyer’s political action committee, contends is the outsize Arizona Public Service’s outsize influence on state politics.
According to NextGen spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier, that should ultimately affect how people vote in future elections.
“We want to make sure that we’re continuing that work to make sure that people know the level of corruption that goes on in Arizona because of APS,” she said.
Cavalier would not specifically disclose how much Steyer intends to spend.
APS spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino derided the effort.
“It seems very hypocritical that a person who doesn’t even live in our state ... is accusing a company that has done business for more than a century in Arizona of having undue influence when we are working to craft responsible energy policy,’’ she said.
Trevino said that whatever money Steyer is spending now is “positioning for the 2020 election.’’
Steyer, a hedge fund manager, funneled $22.8 million last year into Proposition 127. That measure would have required investor-owned utilities like APS and Tucson Electric Power to generate at least half of their power from renewable sources by 2030.
It was rejected by a margin of 2-1 after Pinnacle West Capital Corp., APS’ parent company, spent more than $32 million of its own cash against the proposal.
Steyer had no better luck with his bid to oust state Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
That came after Brnovich’s office altered the description of the Prop. 127 that appeared on the ballot, adding wording that Steyer and proposition proponents said was specifically designed to help APS.
Steyer spent $3.9 million in attack ads on Brnovich. But the Republican incumbent outpolled Democrat January Contreras by about 90,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million ballots cast.
This time, a key focal point of the Steyer-financed campaign will be the rate increase for APS approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission last year by a 4-1 margin.
That increase was supposed to boost the average bill of consumers by about $6 a month and generate an extra $95 million for the utility. But commissioners have been taking a second look amid complaints by many customers that their rates went up much faster.
There’s also a question of whether the utility is bringing in more than the permitted increase.
APS reported earlier this month that its profits in the first three months of this year were $17.9 million, compared with $3.2 million at the same time last year. That led to income figures of $500 million.
APS officials said the difference was a combination of an unusually cold winter and lower operating costs.
Cavalier contends the commission vote is a direct result of the utility putting commissioners of its choosing in place.
Pinnacle West recently disclosed it gave $10.7 million to organizations that spent heavily on the 2014 Corporation Commission race to secure the election of favored utility regulators.
It spent $4.2 million on commission races in 2016; there were no reports of Pinnacle West spending this past election.
“I think the money was spent to elect their own regulators,” Cavalier said.
One point behind the NextGen messages will be to urge APS customers to call commissioners to rescind the rate increase.
Cavalier acknowledged that the $95 million figure was the result of a deal among various intervenors in the case, including the Residential Utility Consumer Office.
But she said they signed off on the deal because they did not believe they could get a better one out of the commission.
A spokesman for APS previously has said any spending on races and lobbyists comes not from ratepayer dollars but from the profits of the parent company.
However, APS is pretty much the sole source of income for Pinnacle West.