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Decisions made by Arizona's utility commission impact student life

Students working for the Arizona Corporation Commission explain why other ASU students should care about the 'fourth branch of Arizona's government'

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To some, the Arizona Corporation Commission is the "fourth branch of Arizona's government." Illustration originally published Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.

As ASU scientist and Tempe City Council member Lauren Kuby runs for a seat on the Arizona Corporation Commission, students who are endorsing her and who have worked with the commission hope college students pay attention to what some refer to as the "fourth branch of Arizona's government."

The Arizona Corporation Commission is the entity overseeing utility services, securities — which are tradable financial assets like stocks — and railroad and pipeline systems. At a meeting for Legislative District 26 Democrats in September, Kuby highlighted the importance of the commission and the power it holds. 

"The commission plays a direct role in your life," Kuby said. "Just five members decide on our renewable energy standards, they regulate the monopolies of gas, water, electricity, railroads and securities and investments."

Despite the vast reach of the commission, many Arizonans, especially students, have never even heard of the commission or the impact it has.  

The commission recently voted to prevent Arizona Public Service Co., a local utility company, from charging customers more to cover the $216 million it spent on upgrades to one of the company's power plants. The vote will allow 69% of APS customers to receive up to a 2% reduction on their utility bill.

APS's service area covers residences in the downtown Phoenix and Tempe areas where most student apartments and homes are located.

In an email, Commissioner Sandra Kennedy explained why the recent issues with APS are critical for young people to pay attention to, especially students who are new to paying utilities.

"Since 2007 APS has been allowed to collect extra money from you, the ratepayer, without prior approval from the Commission," Kennedy said in the email. "There has only been one audit of this Power Supply Adjustor and it was conducted in 2017." 

Emma Wieck, a graduate student studying global management, didn't find out about the commission until she took an energy policy class during her time as an undergraduate at ASU. Her curiosity led her to become an energy policy research intern with the commission.

"I was genuinely curious because the Corporation Commission is weird," Wieck said. "I was just (interested in) how utility policy and state by state energy works." 

Cameron Toering, a law student at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and a legal extern for the commission, said he was interested to find out the reach of the commission during his time as an extern. 

"Other states have their Public Utility Commission (oversee) just water, sewer, gas, (the commission) also does securities, so kind of like the SEC of Arizona," Toering said. "We have quite a big docket and (it's) interesting that we have legislative, executive and judicial authority from the constitution." 

The commission is established by Article 15 of the Arizona Constitution, and Section 6 gives the commission the authority to establish rules and regulations governing for-profit public service companies.

According to the commission's website, Arizona is one of only seven states with constitutionally established commissions to oversee public utilities, railroads and securities. Arizona is also one of only 13 states with elected commissioners — the other 37 have commissioners appointed by the governor or legislature. 

Brian Mecinas, a junior studying sustainability and a member of ASU Young Democrats, endorsed Kuby because of the impact he believes she'll have on the commission as it relates to climate change.

"The ACC is the only body of government that can pave a path of concrete action forward in regards to investing in renewable energy and phasing out the use of fossil fuel infrastructure," Mecinas said. "Given this, it is crucial we elect the right people to serve on the commission."

According to her campaign website, Kuby also plans to advocate for consumer rights and fight corruption if elected to the commission. Mecinas said this is another reason why Kuby is the right person for the job.

"She is truly one of the only voices I would trust to hold the responsibilities of this office and represent Arizonans on the commission," Mecinas said.

Commissioner Anna Tovar pledged to advocate for renewable and carbon-free energy sources while also reforming the commission's code of ethics to allow commissioners to better protect customers.  In order to accomplish this, Kuby and Kennedy are running a joint campaign to expand the Democratic influence on the commission.

Ten candidates are running for two open seats on the commission. On the Democratic side, other than Kuby and Kennedy, Jonathon Hill is running. On the Republican side is Steve Gesell, Cassandra Kimm, Roy Lazaros, Doug Little, Nick Myers, Kim Owens and Kevin Thompson.

In May 2021, the commission voted against new rules that would have required electricity providers to use 100% clean energy sources by 2050. The Arizona Students Association wrote in a statement that the vote was "a huge disappointment, especially to young Arizonians who are worried about their future as utilities aren't held accountable for their climate-harming pollution."

Toering agrees it's important for students to know who's setting the energy policy that will impact the fight against climate change.

"Utilities create the bulk of carbon emissions in our state for global greenhouse gas emissions that are seen and if we want to actually have a planet that's not completely destroyed, people need to be actively involved in the rulemaking process at the commission," Toering said. 

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Reagan PriestManaging Editor

Reagan Priest is a managing editor, overseeing and working with the six digital desks at The State Press. She previously worked as a social justice reporter for Cronkite News and as a digital production intern at The Arizona Republic.

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