Candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission are spending more time debating where their political support is coming from than the utility policies they would pursue if elected.
The five-member commission that regulates utilities, securities, pipelines and railroad crossings in the state has two open seats this year.
Candidates Lucy Mason and Vernon Parker are running as a team in the Republican primary. They have been endorsed by a solar-industry group that frequently has business matters decided by the commission.
Mason and Parker have accused their competitors, Tom Forese and Doug Little, of receiving support from Arizona Public Service Co. A political independent-expenditure committee called Arizona 2014 supports Forese and Little. APS has not responded to questions regarding support of the committee, and utility officials have said they will not guarantee the company will stand on the sidelines of the election.
The winners in the Republican primary in August will face Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Jim Holway in the November general election.
During a televised debate Wednesday, the Republicans struggled to put distance between themselves, agreeing in general that protecting utility ratepayers is paramount to the job and highlighting their respective qualifications.
However, they split widely when asked about property taxes on rooftop solar.
State law exempts rooftop solar panels from taxes. Up until last year, the companies that provide rooftop-leasing options for solar interpreted the law as exempting their products, but the state Department of Revenue reviewed the law and disagreed.
The DOR issued an interpretation that will have the leasing companies, or more likely their customers, paying property taxes starting next year.
Forese and Little defended the tax; APS has weighed in on the debate by noting the company pays property taxes on its own solar installations.
"On one side there are folks that say it is a new tax," Forese said. "On the other side there are folks that say these are taxes that should have been paid (by the solar companies)."
"APS has been tremendously supportive of solar," Little said.
Parker and Mason attended a recent rally opposing the taxes. The rally was organized by a group called Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed (TUSK), which has been at odds with APS for the past year.
The group also recently sent an e-mail soliciting $5 donations for Parker's and Mason's campaigns, which are funded by Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court case opened the door for corporate spending on independent expenditures in elections so long as the spending is not coordinated with the candidate's campaign.
Parker and Mason both said they did not ask for help from TUSK and would prefer the group and all others that have business before the commission abstain from making independent expenditures during the election.
They also both said that they would base their decisions as commissioners on what is best for utility customers, regardless of who spends money to support their campaigns.
Parker and Mason also have accused APS of making independent expenditures to help Forese and Little, and the utility has not rebutted that accusation. APS officials also said they might not continue the company's tradition of staying out of the elections.
Little, questioned after the debate, said he was unaware of any independent expenditures on his campaign by APS. A group called Arizona 2014 has been soliciting for Forese and Little, and the group's organizer has not disclosed where the group gets its funding.
Little said he would not request the company stay out of the race. He said making such expenditures was within the company's rights thanks to the Citizens United decision.
"Why would I ask someone to not exercise their First Amendment rights?" Little said.
Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Bob Stump came out against such spending last year when an Arizona Republic investigation revealed that money from APS and Southwest Gas went to a political committee that helped his campaign in the 2012 elections.
Stump said that although it is within a company's constitutional rights to spend money on its preferred candidates, it gives the appearance of impropriety when regulated companies that will have their electricity prices determined by the commission spend money on the elections. He also said it is inappropriate for TUSK to support its preferred candidates because the solar companies have financial issues decided directly by the commissioners.
Little declined to comment on whether such participation was appropriate for utilities. When asked about it, Little simply turned his back on a reporter and walked away from the conversation.
His running partner, Forese, said the candidates are avoiding any coordination with APS.
"Whether I ask them to (be involved in the campaign) or ask them not to, I believe that would be coordination," Forese said.
The two teams also split on the topic of net metering, the arrangement where utility customers with solar panels get credit for the excess electricity they send to the power grid. The credit they accumulate during the day helps offset the power they use at night when the sun sets.
APS tried last year to alter the net-metering arrangement by increasing the monthly bills of those customers by $50 to $100, saying the solar customers didn't pay their fair share of maintaining the electric grid.
"How do we make sure everyone pays their fair share to maintain the grid," Little said during the debate, echoing the sentiment APS espoused during last year's net-metering hearings.
Parker, in turn, echoed the sentiment espoused by TUSK and the solar industry in that debate, supporting net metering.
"It's the law in 43 states," Parker said. "For the viewer, a simple way to describe it, it's like rollback minutes on your cellphone."
Corporation Commission candidates
The commission consists of five statewide elected officials who oversee regulated utilities such as Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power Co. and Southwest Gas Corp. The officials also regulate securities, corporations and railroad crossings. The job pays $79,500 annually.
Two seats are open for election this year. Four Republicans and two Democrats are vying for them.
• Republican Tom Forese, an educational-software executive and state representative. Chairman of the Commerce Committee.
• Republican Doug Little, a retired software-industry executive and current gun-range operator.
• Republican Vernon Parker, an attorney and former mayor of Paradise Valley.
• Republican Lucy Mason, former architectural illustrator and small-business woman. A state representative. Former chairwoman of Energy and Water Committee. Former Prescott Councilwoman.
• Democrat Jim Holway, a board member of the organization that runs the Central Arizona Project canal system, director of the Western Lands and Communities program through the Sonoran Institute. Former professor at Arizona State University and assistant director of Arizona Department of Water Resources.
• Democrat Sandra Kennedy, former business owner. Served in state Legislature and Senate, and served one term as Corporation Commissioner from 2008 to 2012.