If you support teachers, pay attention to the Corporation Commission

September 11, 2019 9:54 am

Don Brandt, CEO of Arizona Public Service and its parent company, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., wraps up the morning session before the Arizona Corporation Commission on Sept. 4, 2019. Photo by Tom Tingle/The Republic | Pool photo

Last week’s spectacle at the Arizona Corporation Commission gave me heartburn.

Perhaps it was because Don Brandt, APS CEO and man too important to respond to questions from the media, attempted to present a rosy picture of APS, claiming Arizonans loved the company even though two separate surveys found otherwise.

Or perhaps it was because the company defended its practice of using door hangers as a means of “personal contact” prior to a shutoff, even though many people enter their homes through the garage and could easily miss the notice.

But most likely the heartburn was a reaction to Brandt’s convenient memory loss after Commissioner Sandra Kennedy questioned him about APS’s spending to defeat education measures.

Brandt swore he had no idea what Kennedy was referencing when she asked him why an electricity company would spend money on education campaigns. So, let’s refresh his memory.  

As the #RedForEd movement was kicking into high gear in early 2018, APS’s parent company, Pinnacle West, along with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spent heavily on a series of ads for the newly created Arizona Education Project.

The ads painted a sunny and wholly inaccurate picture of the reality in Arizona classrooms, claiming huge investments had been made in public schools and touting the governor’s teacher pay raise proposal.  

The group claimed the ads were simply meant as a “positive education message,” but teachers didn’t buy it. And in April, approximately 50,000 marched to the Capitol in protest.

The walk-outs secured modest pay raises, but Arizona’s elementary school teachers still rank 49th in pay nationally, the same as last year. Inflation-adjusted salaries for teachers in Arizona are nearly 10% lower now than in 2009.

Ducey and allies claimed victory, but the teachers were still dismayed. Beyond abysmal pay and an ongoing teacher shortage, Arizona classrooms were still struggling with the highest teacher-to-pupil and counselor-to-student ratios in the nation. Years of underfunding had also led to crumbling buildings and outdated textbooks and technology, among other issues.

Teachers remained organized, and in the months after the walkout, gathered thousands of signatures to put the Invest in Education Act on the ballot, an initiative that would have raised roughly $700 million per year in additional classroom funding.

The initiative relied on a tax increase on high income earners, meaning millionaires such as Don Brandt and other top execs at APS would be asked to pay their fair share for funding public education.

That didn’t sit well with the utility or with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which counts APS as one of its biggest funders. The chamber launched a challenge against the initiative and successfully kicked the measure off the ballot.

But beyond the personal reasons Brandt and Co. may have had to try and defeat the education initiative, there’s another, more plausible explanation as to why the utility inserted itself into the battle over education funding.  

APS was in full-on panic mode last year after Tom Steyer dumped millions into Proposition 127, a clean energy measure that would have mandated APS generate more of its energy from renewables. Had the initiative passed, the mandate would have cut into the company’s bottom line.

But before voters had a chance to weigh in, the governor rushed to APS’s rescue, signing legislation that allowed the utility to flaunt voters’ wishes by simply paying a small fine for noncompliance.

No good deed goes unpunished, and Ducey needed help as well. He was heading into a re-election campaign against an education expert, while facing heavy criticism from teachers and parents after boasting about a booming economy while claiming the state could only afford a measly 1% pay raise for teachers.

Cue the upbeat ads about major investments in education, and, months later, the campaign to defeat Invest in Ed. 

Though Brandt denied the company ever returned favors to the governor, the timing seems awfully coincidental.

It’s almost like the time APS spent $10 million to influence the races for two corporation commissioner members who just so happened to approve a rate hike that just so happened to dramatically increase the company’s profits.

Yes, very coincidental.

Commissioner Bob Burns, who’s been critical of APS, recently suggested the board consider lowering APS’s return on equity, a move that would give the corporation fewer dollars to spend on campaigns and fancy marketing schemes.

While I applaud Burns for this suggestion, I don’t think the move goes far enough to reining in the company’s corrupt practices.

APS execs haven’t only worked to undermine the integrity of the corporation commission, they’ve used hefty political contributions to ensure outsized influence at the legislature and within the governor’s office. And it is that influence that has given the corporation a powerful voice on issues completely unrelated to electricity production or management.

Issues such as teacher pay and private school vouchers.

As someone who has spent the last several years working closely with education groups to advocate for increased funding, I’m more than a little miffed that my electricity company is spending the profits it has made from ratepayers such as me to undermine my work and values.  

The Corporation Commission can do more than simply limit APS’s wealth. It can and should create rules to prohibit regulated utilities from participating in or contributing to political candidates or campaigns.

It only seems fair that, if ratepayers have no choice in who provides them electricity, then electricity providers shouldn’t be allowed to use the money it makes off of those captive ratepayers to influence elections.

Next year, Arizona voters will elect three people to the Corporation Commission, which means voters will have an opportunity to choose a majority of board members who will have to decide whether to curb the power of APS or maintain the status quo.

If you care about public education, choose wisely. Who sits on that board could also mean the difference between more or less education funding.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.