APS, pro-solar group together spend $6 million on Arizona Corporation Commission races

The Arizona Corporation Commission has long been one of the most important state regulatory bodies in the nation for the solar industry. It also has one of the most questionable histories, with “dark money” scandals in the 2014 commission races, FBI investigations, and commissioners resigning due to conflicts of interest.

On Tuesday Arizona voters will choose candidates for three of the five seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, in races that have attracted a total of $6 million in spending from solar advocates, the utilities which commissioners are supposed to regulate, and other groups.

The largest single amount of spending is the $3.5 million that Pinnacle West, the parent company of utility Arizona Public Service (APS), is spending through the AZ Coalition for Reliable Electricity. This is in excess even of the $3.2 million that APS is believed to have contributed to candidates in the 2014 election through “dark money” groups.

However, this year the solar industry and advocates are fighting back with their own contributions. A group calling itself “Save our AZ Solar”, backed by SolarCity, the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club, has contributed $2.4 million to the races.

In some cases, they are backing the same candidates. Sitting Commissioner Bob Burns (R), who has attempted to open an investigation into dark money funding in the 2014 elections, has received funding from both Pinnacle West and Save our AZ Solar.

Commissioner Andy Tobin (R) is also backed by Pinnacle West, and is listed as one of the candidates that Save Our AZ Solar supports, however records do not indicate that Tobin is receiving any money from solar advocates.

Tobin appears to be milking his position for all the money he can get. In addition to his job at the ACC, Tobin has been soliciting donations for his “Legislative Affairs Institute” at Arizona State University, which is financed through the ASU Foundation. ASU Foundation, in turn, accepted $181,000 from APS in 2013.

Arizona Republic has described his position with the foundation as “another opportunity… for special interests to try to buy his commission vote.”

In addition to Tobin and Burns, three other candidates are running. Bill Mundell (D), a former commissioner, helped to create Arizona’s renewable energy mandate, and has received most of the funding by Save Our AZ Solar. Tom Chabin (D) is also listed as a candidate supported by the group, however it has not funded his campaign.

Boyd Dunn (R) is supported by Pinnacle West.

Several of the candidates are raising money directly to support their campaigns, and others are funded through the AZ Citizens Clean Elections Commission. However, in both cases the amounts raised are a fraction of what is being spent by Pinnacle West and Save Our AZ Solar.

The thee seats that are open are those of Commissioners Tobin, Burns and Bob Stump (R), who is prevented from running for re-election due to term limits. There are no separate ACC districts, so the three candidates who receive the top votes will serve on the commission. Given that three of the five seats are up for grabs, this could potentially result in a majority on the commission that is much more favorable to solar than the current composition of the ACC.

Editor’s note: Be sure to check out pv magazine USA’s special election night coverage of the U.S. Presidential race, the battle for the Senate, Florida’s Amendment 1, and the ACC races.