Editorial: Put distance between regulators, special interests

Election or appointment? That is the question the head of the Arizona Corporation Commission, Tom Forese, has raised for the state’s utility regulators.

It is not an easy proposal, considering that voters appear to be mixed when it comes to appointments. Based on feedback from Daily Courier readers, they dislike the “retention” option for judges, and appear OK with the Governor appointing members of the state Board of Education, for example.

It can be a sticky wicket.

In the case of the ACC, which regulates power companies, water, solar, etc., a former commissioner, Gary Pierce, has pleaded not guilty to charges of accepting money through his wife from a utility executive in exchange for supporting two separate financial matters to benefit that family-owned company.

At a minimum, it has brought into question his prior votes.

Pierce, through an attorney, told Capitol Media Services the indictment represents selected use of facts by the government.

Forese, who is not commenting about the charges that also involve Pierce’s wife, Sherry, lobbyist Jim Norton, and George H. Johnson, manager of Johnson Utilities, has said “this could be the strongest argument for having an appointed commission.”

Aside from the fact that it would require voter approval to amend the Arizona Constitution, it brings into the spotlight another ACC debate — that of current member Bob Burns trying to get proof for his belief that Arizona Power Service (APS) and its parent, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., supported candidates for the commission in the 2014 election to the tune of $3.2 million.

Two groups won’t disclose the names of their donors for that $3.2 million, which supported Republicans Doug Little and, yes, Forese. Burns has been unsuccessful getting APS or Pinnacle to disclose what they spent on the race or whether they were the source of any of that cash. He also has been unsuccessful in getting fellow commissioners to support his subpoenas.

Back to appointments, based on the 2010 landmark U.S. constitutional law and corporate law case, Citizens United, spending happens in the name of companies and organizations. The Supreme Court held that freedom of speech prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations.

That is not to say Pierce or APS are guilty of anything. However, influence can be had in elections — even those of regulators — something that since 2010 when the high court made its decision has changed the political landscape.

The alternative is letting the Governor, in this case Doug Ducey, make the appointments. It would put some distance between the regulators and special interests.

It would change the “influence” to be more like when the President of the United States appoints justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

That said, a true confirmation process in the Arizona Legislature would be necessary.

It still would shift the power to the political party in control of the legislature and of the Governor’s Office, but that is a layer of separation we could get behind.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing editors@prescottaz.com.