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Fight Brews In Arizona Over Dark Money, Solar Policy

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SOLAR PANEL ARIZONA
A fight over solar policy has boiled over into the Republican primary for the state's utility regulatory commission. (Ross D. Franklin) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Arizona Public Service, the largest utility in the state, is facing scrutiny over whether it is secretly funding a campaign against two Republican candidates for the state's utility regulatory commission.

The primary race for the state's Corporation Commission, which oversees utility issues in the state, features four Republican candidates: Thomas Forese, Doug Little, Lucy Mason and Vernon Parker. A conservative dark money group, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, has thrown its money behind Forese and Little, as well as behind secretary of state candidate Justin Pierce — spending a total of $1.1 million on the primaries this year, according to the state's campaign finance records.

As the Arizona Republic reported earlier this week, that's a significant increase in electoral spending for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which doled out just $185,000 on 2012 races. It's a nonprofit making independent expenditures in this campaign, so it doesn't have to disclose its donors. But this secrecy has allowed allegations to fester that APS is the one funding the effort in Arizona.

For its part, APS has evaded directly answering whether it is funding the group. In response to The Huffington Post asking about the issue, company spokesman Alan Bunnell wrote: "Although we typically do not comment on individual contributions, we routinely support public officials, candidates and causes that are pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona, regardless of party affiliation."

If this sounds familiar, it is.

Last year, APS caught flack when it came to light that the company was secretly funding the Koch-backed conservative group 60 Plus Association to run anti-solar ads, after initially denying it had done so. Those ads came amid a major fight over whether to change the state's solar net-metering policy, which allows homes and businesses with solar panels to sell excess energy back to the grid.

APS had wanted to increase fees for those solar customers, arguing they weren't paying a fair share for maintenance of the grid. But solar advocates, like Barry Goldwater, Jr., son of the famed Arizona Republican politician, accused APS of trying to effectively kill rooftop solar.

That fight ended in a draw, with the Corporation Commission setting a $5 monthly fee for solar users — higher than what solar advocates wanted but lower than what APS preferred.

Since then, another fight has broken out between APS and solar groups like The Alliance for Solar Choice and Goldwater's Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed over whether people who lease solar units should have to pay property taxes on them. (APS initially said it was neutral on the tax, but then later said it was for it, the Arizona Republic reported in April.)

Those fights have increased the attention to this year's Corporation Commission race, turning it into a slugfest over solar.

Solar groups are backing Lucy Mason and Vernon Parker in the Republican primary. Bryan Miller, the vice president of public policy and power markets for the solar company Sunrun and the co-chairman of TASC, said the two candidates "have been consistently pro-solar." Mason and Parker have been publicly critical of APS, writing in a letter to the utility's CEO, Don Brandt, that it would be "highly inappropriate" for the company to try to influence the election of commissioners who would, in turn, regulate the company.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Free Enterprise Club has sent mailers accusing Mason and Parker of being supporters of "President Obama's energy plan" and has spent nearly half a million dollars in support of Little and Forese. The group is also spending big on Justin Pierce, a Republican primary candidate for secretary of state, who is the son of current Corporation Commission member Gary Pierce.

(While APS has not publicly supported Pierce's candidacy, The Huffington Post reported last October that APS' chief lobbyist reserved a room at a Phoenix country club for a Pierce campaign event. Pierce's spokesman said at the time that the lobbyist "simply provided access to a venue at the request of a friend.")

With the fresh allegations about APS' potential role in the commission and secretary of state races, solar advocates and APS are once again going at it. TASC's Miller accused APS of being "a company that's run amok" and is misusing ratepayer money.

"It's completely corrupt," Miller said.

APS spokesman Bunnell, in turn, accused the solar groups of throwing the commissioners' race, arguing that they "have orchestrated a non-stop propaganda war for the last 18 months."

"They have misrepresented important Arizona energy issues to further the narrow financial interests of their clients. And now they’ve thrown their support and rhetoric behind candidates for the [corporation commission]," he said. "It would be irresponsible for us not to defend our company, which plays a critical role powering Arizona’s economy and supporting our communities."

The Arizona primaries are slated for August 26.

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