Originally Published: July 19, 2018 7:45 p.m.
PHOENIX — The state’s largest electric utility already has set aside close to $11 million to make elections this year come out the way it wants.
New campaign finance reports show Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona Public Service, has put $7.53 million in its bid to keep voters from approving a ballot measure which would require half of all power generated in the state come from renewable sources by 2030. That compares with nearly $4.5 million put into the issue by California billionaire Tom Steyer, who is pushing the change.
Matt Benson, spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, the campaign committee set up by Pinnacle West, said it makes sense for the company, whose income is generated by ratepayers, to spend that kind of money. He said the effort is to tell voters that what Steyer wants would lead to sharply higher energy costs.
But much of what Pinnacle West has spent so far has nothing to do with voter education, but to keep the issue off the ballot entirely. It has paid $5.9 million to Arizona Petition Partners, part of what Benson said is an effort to go through the signatures submitted by Steyer’s group and see how many can be disqualified.
That $7.53 million to quash the ballot measure is only part of what Pinnacle West has set aside for this year’s election. It already has a warchest of another $3.2 million for “independent expenditures’’ on political races, essentially commercials it will run on behalf of candidates it favors and against those it does not want elected.
And that’s aside from what the company’s own political action committee contributes directly to candidates, like the $10,200 it already gave to help incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey win another term.
Pinnacle West is no stranger to putting big money into political issues.
Two years ago the company spent $4.2 million to ensure that Republicans Andy Tobin, Boyd Dunn and Bob Burns won seats on the five-member commission.
The utility also has refused to confirm or deny that it was the source of $3.2 million from anonymous donors spent in 2014 to secure the election of Republicans Tom Forese and Doug Little.
Little has since quit to take a job in the Trump administration. He was replaced by Justin Olson who, according to campaign finance records, already has raised $60,259.
But that pales in comparison with the $591,306 that Forese lists in contributions directly to his campaign to keep his seat for another four years.
Not far behind is Democrat-turned-Republican Rodney Glassman whose $514,684 includes $100,000 of his own money.
Eric Sloan has raised $23,025 in his bid to be one of two Republican nominees, with Jim O’Connor hoping to get public funds for his campaign.
All three Democrats in the hunt already have obtained sufficient $5 donations to qualify for the $108,779 in public dollars.
Benson defended the spending by Pinnacle West, particularly in its bid to quash the renewable energy initiative.
Current commission rules require utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025. Company officials have contended that a requirement to have 50 percent mandate by 2030 makes no sense, saying it will lead to costlier power as the utility could end up with the expense of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station but an inability to use all of its power.
“Every dime we’ve spent this last six months is aimed at defeating this ballot measure before it increases electricity rates,’’ Benson said.
It starts with all the money spent on a company that normally circulates petitions.
“It’s not cheap exposing the initiative’s use of felon petition circulators and uncovering their rampant fraud,’’ Benson said.
Arizona law prohibits convicted felons of circulating petitions. And if a review of the petitions actually finds them, any signatures they gathered will be thrown out.
But it is less clear whether that prohibition applies to felons who have had their civil rights restored.
There also are allegations that at least some of the petitions contain obviously forged signatures, something else that would be caught in the screening process by state and county election officials.
Anyway, Benson said, that $7.53 million that Pinnacle West has spent so far needs to be put in context with the $4.46 million spent by NextGen Climate Action, the political action committee formed by Steyer to put the measure on the ballot.
“We’re up against a California billionaire who’s indicated he’ll spend any amount to cram this initiative down the throats of Arizona families,’’ he said.
The initiative has the backing of not only solar advocates but also some public health groups who say Arizona needs to move away from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. And they say that while nuclear power emits no carbon pollutants, there are health effects from mining coal plus the need for water to drive the turbines and cool the fuel rods.