GOP lawmakers want control of energy policy

PHOENIX - Republican lawmakers are moving to grab control of energy policy from state utility regulators in a political turf fight over the future of Arizona's solar power industry.

A bill co-sponsored by 30 Republican lawmakers would make any new policy guidelines or rule changes by the Arizona Corporation Commission subject to approval by the Legislature and the governor.

However, in the face of opposition to the bill, its chief sponsor said she plans to water it down.

Supporters of the proposal say it would help protect consumers from unnecessary surcharges. But critics say the plan threatens the growth of the state's solar industry.

The legislation, approved on a 31-27 House vote Monday that sent it to the Senate, reflects debate over whether government should direct energy development.

Also, the bill echoes lawmakers' concerns over whether the five-member utility commission should have final decision-making authority rather than the 90-member Legislature.

"The Legislature is the one that is supposed to be setting policy," said Glendale Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, the bill's chief sponsor.

The measure from majority Republicans is a response to court orders upholding commission rules requiring electric utilities to get a specific portion of their energy from renewable sources such as solar.

Arizona courts ruled that the commission's state constitutional authority to establish rates for regulated utilities allowed it to approve renewable energy standards in 2006.

Lawyers for the commission and the Legislature's own bill-writing office have issued opinions saying that the Republican proposal would be unconstitutional.

Even some Republican representatives who voted for the bill Monday voiced reservations about its constitutionality, and Lesko said during Monday's vote she intends to propose changes in the Senate to address those concerns.

Lesko said the changes would remove the requirement for legislative review of new commission rules, and Sun City Republican Rep. Rick Gray said a new version could center on barring the commission from expanding the renewable energy rules.

The bill has backing from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative advocacy organization that says it would protect ratepayers now paying surcharges imposed under the commission's standards.

The institute had filed a suit challenging the commission rules that require utilities to gradually increase their use of renewable energy sources to 15 percent by 2025.

A solar industry group opposes the measure, saying its enactment would create uncertainty about incentives and investments that help spur development.

"This is going to be very detrimental to the economy of Arizona and especially our recovery," said Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff.

Lesko and other supporters said the legislation only affects new rules or changes to existing rules, not the current renewable energy standards.

"This isn't a pro-solar or an anti-solar bill," said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. "This is simply about putting a check and balance into a process."

Chabin disputed that, arguing that the bill is anti-solar.

"You're doggone right. Look at the opposition," he said, referring to the solar industry group's stance.