You have to be a real policy wonk to get excited about elections for the Arizona Corporation Commission. But this year, you might want to pay closer attention.

The Corporation Commission does the dull-but-very-important work of regulating utilities in Arizona. That means this is the group that ultimately controls whether your electric bill rises.

Lots of Havasu residents turned out for a public hearing earlier this year when UniSource was seeking a rate increase, including what it called “demand charges.” The corporation commission, unaccustomed to that kind of attention, called for a second meeting in a bigger venue, and that meeting was packed as well. The agency got the message, acknowledging that Havasu and Kingman residents were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposals for rate increases – and so did UniSource, which decided to back off on its request for demand charges.

That’s how the system should work, and thanks to public pressure, it did. But more often than not, the ACC and the utilities it regulates don’t get much attention. Recent reports by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services and Ryan Randazzo of The Arizona Republic suggest troubling investigations into elections and campaign contributions. The FBI is investigating a former ACC member over election issues. A nonprofit clean energy group says it uncovered extensive communications between the agency and the state’s top electricity provider and a nonprofit that spent heavily on campaigns in 2014 – and during that time, one commissioner sent more than 50 private text messages to a utility executive and 46 to a political “dark money” organizer, according to the nonprofit investigating the commission.

It’s too early to point fingers at individual commissioners, but it seems the relationships between the corporation commission members and the businesses they’re supposed to keep accountable are uncomfortably close. Most utilities are government-sanctioned monopolies, meaning the ACC is the only line of defense for Arizona rate payers against unreasonable energy prices. Corporation Commission members need to do a better job of asking hard questions on the behalf of the people they represent and distancing themselves from the appearance of inappropriate cozy relationships.

There are a lot of elections this November, but perhaps none with the potential to directly affect your pocketbook as much as the Arizona Corporation Commission. With three seats up for grabs, 2016 is an opportunity to ensure the agency is led by the kind of public crusaders it was designed for.

— Today’s News-Herald


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