PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Legislature is fast-tracking a proposed law that would strip state utility regulators of their power to require electric utilities to get more of their power from solar and other clean energy power sources.
But Republican lawmakers who control the Senate and House are not proposing to enact any standards of their own to replace those now being considered by the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Instead, GOP lawmakers emboldened by a state Supreme Court decision that called the commission’s powers into question simply will bar any new requirements above the existing standards requiring utilities to get 15% of their power supply from renewable supplies by 2025. The commission has proposed requiring regulated utilities to get half their power from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2035 and 100% from clean energy, including nuclear, by 2050.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who has been critical of the commission’s adoption of renewable energy standards, has backed the effort to block the commission’s power.
"I want to see the Corporation Commission setting rates. And I want to see the state Legislature setting energy policy," Ducey said during an Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry event on Jan. 8. "And I hope we can straighten that out this legislative session."
On Wednesday, a Senate committee dominated by Republicans approved the proposal on a 5-4 party-line vote. A House committee approved a mirror proposal on a 6-4 vote Tuesday with no Democratic support. The votes set the identical bills on track to swiftly move to debate and passage and then head to Ducey’s desk.
Democrats railed against the proposal, noting that blocking the commission’s proposal means there will be no mandate to grow renewable power, which is increasingly important in controlling carbon emissions that are blamed for climate change.
"Our job should be to listen to what the people of Arizona want – they are crystal clear on this topic," Democratic Rep. Aaron Lieberman said at Tuesday’s House hearing. "They don’t get to choose their power company, but they sure want renewable energy and they like a corporation commission that is actually standing up and fighting for them."
Commissioners adopted the proposed standards on a 4-1 vote in November and can vote on final rules after a public comment period closes. That vote came after an extensive review with hours of hearings and thousands of public comments. Major utilities signed off on the plan.
If the proposal now being debated in the Legislature passes as appears likely, those rules won’t take effect, barring a court fight.
Republican lawmakers have adopted Ducey’s mantra that the commission acted outside its constitutional authority when it enacted the 15% mandate in 2006 and in proposing the new rules.
"It confirms the Corporation Commission’s intended function at inception," GOP Sen. Sine Kerr said at a hearing Wednesday. "That is, exercising ratemaking authority to protect captive consumers against corporate abuse, while restoring the Legislature’s paramount authority to regulate the public health, safety and welfare as recently affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court."
In that unrelated July 2020 Arizona Supreme Court ruling, the high court took pains to decipher the complicated history of legal rulings about the commission’s power. The ruling noted that setting rates was a power granted by the state constitution when the framers created the commission but other authority it held was only with the permission of the Legislature.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Engel said the GOP proposal was twisting the logic of the state Supreme Court ruling because it wasn’t proposing any health and safety standards.
"This is all about pre-empting their permissive authority," Engel said.
Two corporation commissioners, Democrats Anna Tovar and Sandra Kennedy, presented testimony in oppositon to the plan at the hearings, with Kennedy calling the plan "constitutional overreach." The Republican who opposed the new energy standards in November, Commissioner Justin Olson, backed the legislative proposal, saying the commission had been overstepping its bounds.
The plan to strip the commission’s power was opposed by environmental groups and some business interests. It received backing from small-government groups such as the Goldwater Institute and the Free Enterpise Club.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, said the proposed law would gut standards that would help Arizonans save money and fight climate change.
"The benefits of clean energy are clear, for our air and water, for our climate and for our economy," Bahr testified Wednesday. "I will also add they are cheaper consistently than fossil fuels."