March 18, 2012

Arizona energy bill would give lawmakers a say in state energy policy

Republican lawmakers in Arizona 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.

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, scheduled for a formal House vote Monday, 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.

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.

The House gave the measure preliminary approval Friday. House passage would send it to the Senate.


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