As the election season heads into the home stretch, the campaign for a ballot measure that would mandate a dramatic increase in renewable energy use has largely shifted its focus from Proposition 127 to defeating Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, the campaign committee for Proposition 127, decided to take aim at Brnovich’s re-election over the the attorney general’s insistence on including language on the ballot that it considers biased. The proposition would require that Arizona utilities get 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. The Attorney General’s Office inserted language into the ballot description of Prop. 127 stating that utilities will have to follow the new requirement “irrespective of cost.”
In an ad that began airing on television last week, the Clean Energy campaign accused Brnovich of aiding Arizona Public Service by changing the ballot language for Prop. 127 because of the $425,000 that the utility giant contributed to the Republican Attorneys General Association in 2014. RAGA ran television ads in support of Brnovich’s 2014 campaign.
“Arizona’s top election officials called it eyebrow-raising. You can call it corrupt. To clean up Arizona and lower costs, vote no on Brnovich and yes on 127,” the ad says.
In an email exchange with the Attorney General’s Office in August, state Elections Director Eric Spencer called the new language “eyebrow-raising” because it went beyond the actual text of the initiative.
D.J. Quinlan, a spokesman for the Clean Energy campaign, wouldn’t provide a dollar figure that the campaign plans to spend on ads against Brnovich. But he said the campaign has already spent millions on television advertising and that it will spend millions more before election day. The campaign will continue to focus on Brnovich through Election Day, Quinlan said.
Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona reported spending nearly $9 million through mid-August, at the end of the last campaign finance reporting period. The campaign’s money has come almost exclusively from NextGen Climate Action, which is funded by California billionaire and Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer.
Pinnacle West, the parent company of APS, has already spent more than $11 million trying to defeat Prop. 127.
Quinlan said the ads aren’t retaliation against Brnovich. Rather, he said, the attorney general has taken the “unprecedented” step of putting his thumb on the scale to help defeat a ballot measure. Because Brnovich shown himself to be an obstacle to the citizen initiative process, Quinlan said it’s imperative that he be defeated.
“If the attorney general of Arizona has the power to put his thumb on the scale for a ballot measure, then citizen initiatives don’t really exist, right?” Quinlan said. “So, therefore, yes, we do need to replace Mark Brnovich as attorney general in order for Arizonans to see the energy future that they want.”
Quinlan said the ballot language pushed by the Attorney General’s Office has made the campaign for Prop. 127 more difficult. The campaign must now expand its message in order to educate voters that the language that will appear on ballots is biased, he said.
Spokesmen for Brnovich’s campaign and Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, the campaign committee that’s fighting Prop. 127, both described the new ad strategy as a concession by the Clean Energy campaign that it’s initiative is losing. A poll commissioned by the Arizona Republic last week showed Prop. 127 losing by a dozen percentage points.
“This is their primary message, and it’s not aimed at passing Prop. 127. That’s telling. It’s not a coincidence that they’ve made this change in strategy at the same time that their poll numbers have collapsed,” said Matthew Benson, a spokesman for the anti-Prop. 127 campaign. “That’s devastating for the ‘yes’ campaign on the eve of early ballots.”
Election officials will begin mailing out early ballots on Wednesday.
Brnovich’s campaign and his official office both defended the attorney general’s ballot language for Prop. 127. While the Clean Energy campaign insists that the language is meant to suggest to voters that Prop. 127 will increase electricity bills, Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the language is neutral. He said the current ratemaking process for utilities takes cost into account, and the phrase “irrespective of cost” is simply meant to convey that the new mandate doesn’t do the same.
Anderson said the Attorney General’s Office made changes to the ballot language of six of seven propositions that voters will decide in November. And while at least one ballot measure campaign successfully lobbied for changes to the office’s proposed wording, the Clean Energy campaign did not avail itself of the opportunity to do so.
“They could have suggested additional language. They could have sued. But they did neither,” Anderson said.
Anderson also questioned Spencer’s emailed description of the new language as “eyebrow-raising,” a quote that has been repeatedly cited by the Clean Energy campaign.
“Don’t think it’s lost on us that this came a day or two after the primary, where his boss had just lost. And I think it’s also kind of ironic that the Secretary of State’s Office is being held up as this beacon of competency, which has not been the case for, obviously, the past four years,” he said.
The ads from the Clean Energy committee aren’t the only assistance that Democratic attorney general nominee January Contreras has gotten lately. The Arizona Democratic Party has reserved at least $330,000 worth of airtime to run pro-Contreras ads in the final month before the November 6 election, according to records available on the Federal Communication Commission’s website. The Democratic Attorneys General Association has reserved more than $200,000 worth of airtime for the final two weeks before Election Day, as well.
Quinlan said the Clean Energy campaign is also planning to spend money on television ads in the campaign for Corporation Commission, the five-member body that is responsible for regulating utilities. Incumbent Commissioner Justin Olson and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman are running against Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears for two commission seats.
Campaign committees that advocate for ballot measures have only been expressly permitted to spent in candidate races since 2016, when the Legislative approved a massive overhaul of Arizona’s campaign finance statutes that was written by Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s office. The old campaign finance laws designated specific and separate types of committees for ballot measure campaigns and for independent expenditures in candidate races. Spencer said such activity was a “gray area” in the law prior to the 2016 legislation.