Ducey chides utility regulators for ‘mission creep’

By: - June 17, 2019 9:29 pm

Photo by Arizona Public Service | Facebook

Gov. Doug Ducey said new regulations may be needed to protect utility customers from having their electricity shut off during Arizona’s scorching summers, but he said recent “mission creep” among utility regulators may make the state legislature the proper venue to tackle the issue.

The comments come in the wake of revelations that an Arizona Public Service customer in Sun City West died after the utility shut of her power last summer. APS shut off 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman’s power on Sept. 7 because she still owed the company about $51 from a partially paid bill. The high temperature was 105 degrees that day.

Speaking to reporters on Monday in Paradise Valley, Ducey said Arizona should protect its most vulnerable residents, and said that may include new protections, regulations or legislation to prevent such incidents in the future. The governor said he doesn’t yet know all the facts, but that it seems that Pullman’s death was avoidable.

Ducey called on the Corporation Commission, a five-member panel whose members are elected in statewide contests, to “look at what’s possible here.” But he also suggested that it may be more appropriate for him and the legislature to resolve the problem instead of leaving it to the body that is constitutionally empowered to set utility rates and regulations.

“I also think there’s been a bit of a mission creep on the Corporation Commission beyond just setting rates. And something of this level could rise to legislation or regulation to protect Arizona’s most vulnerable,” Ducey said at the Camelback Inn following an Arizona Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The governor elaborated he wants to see the commission undertaking its “constitutional charge.”

“If there’s other opportunities around energy regulation and policy that the legislature and the Governor’s Office should be involved in, we want to make certain that we’re involved. We’ve got a changing energy environment, and we’ve got different players on the stage in the utility world. So, we want to do what’s right and what’s best in terms of public policy,” Ducey said.

Asked if he believed the legislature should set renewable energy standards instead of the commission, Ducey said, “I think we can have some discussion on that front.”

However, Ducey said there’s nothing to read into his statements.

“It’s just, how do we avoid a situation like we experienced here in a state that’s going to continue to have warm summers?” he said.

Corporation Commissioner Justin Olson shared at least some of Ducey’s sentiments. Olson made some similar arguments in a recent op-ed in The Arizona Republic in which he argued that the commission was exceeding its authority by issuing mandates on things like biomass and electric vehicle charging stations.

“It sounds like he read my op-ed, which is very exciting, because that’s exactly the point that I’ve been trying to make, which is that the constitutional role for the commission is very specific, and that is setting just and reasonable rates. So, to some extent I do feel the commission has gone beyond that constitutional authority when we’re now mandating that utilities thin the forests to fight the forest fires,” he said.

But Olson said establishing new rules for utility shutoffs is well within the commission’s purview under the Arizona Constitution, though he said there’s also a role to be played by the governor and legislature, who establish the statutes under with commission operates.

Olson, a Republican, said setting renewable energy standards also falls under the commission’s jurisdiction, though he warned that it runs afoul of its constitutional mandate to set “just and reasonable rates” when it requires the use of expensive energy sources such as biomass. Olson wrote in his op-ed in May that the commission erred in establishing its renewable energy standards in 2007 by not requiring that utilities invest in the most cost-effective energy sources.

“When it comes to solar energy and wind energy, these are the most cost-effective methods of generating electricity while the sun is shining and while the wind is blowing,” Olson said.

Commissioner Bob Burns, a Republican who has been a fierce critic and opponent of APS, said there’s a role to be played by the governor and legislature in setting new regulations for utility shutoffs, though he emphasized that the commission has authority over the matter.

But when it comes to the renewable energy standards, Burns said the Arizona Constitution grants the commission exclusive authority to set utility rates. Renewable energy standards, he said, are part of that.

“Who’s creeping, the governor or the commission? Maybe he ought to read the constitution,” Burns said.

Former Commissioner Kris Mayes said the current renewable energy standards, which she helped establish, are the exclusive responsibility of the Corporation Commission. She pointed to a 2011 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court that upheld that authority.

Mayes said she believes that the legislature and governor do have the power to establish utility shutoff rules. She noted that Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, sponsored legislation that would have limited utilities’ ability to shut off electricity and gas when temperatures reached certain levels, and that no Republicans supported the bill.

Stacey Champion, a consumer advocate who has advocated for protections that would prevent utilities from shutting off customers’ electricity, noted that Ducey’s comments came as the commission has taken a more adversarial stance toward APS after the November election changed its makeup. She said that trend could continue next November when three of the commission’s five seats are up for election, even suggesting that Democrats, who currently control just one seat, could take a majority.

Ducey isn’t alone in calling for new protections to prevent utilities from shutting off customers’ electricity on hot days. Burns asked Corporation Commission staff to begin looking into the matter on Friday. And Attorney General Mark Brnovich tweeted on Friday that if the commission won’t take action, he will.

APS stopped electricity disconnections for unpaid bills after the Phoenix New Times reported about Pullman’s death.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”