Arizona brawl over renewables ballot measure is going to court

Source: Edward Klump, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, July 23, 2018

Critics of an Arizona renewable energy ballot proposal filed suit this week and are seeking an injunction, arguing the effort didn’t attract enough valid signatures.

It’s the latest response to a measure that would require regulated electric utilities to source at least 50 percent of annual power sales from renewable energy by 2030. Utilities could earn and trade credits under the plan, which wouldn’t apply to the Salt River Project, a major power and water company. Supporters hope the proposal will appear on the November ballot.

The saga already has attracted millions of dollars as supporters and opponents jockey to see whether the measure will qualify. Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has receivedmore than $4 million from NextGen Climate Action, which is tied to Tom Steyer, the billionaire known for backing climate causes. Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, which opposes the measure, has seenover $7 million from Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent of the Arizona Public Service Co. (APS) utility.

Plaintiffs in the new litigation include two state lawmakers, mayors of cities such as Gilbert and Mesa, the CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the treasurer of Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, according to a court filing. Those plaintiffs are suing in their personal capacities. The requestfor a preliminary and permanent injunction aims to keep the measure off the ballot.

“Our painstaking review of every petition submitted by the initiative campaign has uncovered widespread forgery and deception and an utter disregard for Arizona law and elections procedures,” Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, said in a statement. “This is truly fraud on a grand scale.”

Word of the litigation didn’t leave Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona cowering yesterday.

The challenge was no surprise, Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the pro-initiative group, said via email. The group’s “adversary here has unlimited resources,” he added. McLeod expressed confidence that the signatures would pass muster and pointed blame at APS’s leaders.

“How much deeper will they reach into their customers’ pockets to pay their corporate lawyers to file delusional lawsuits?” McLeod asked.

In a statement, APS said it supports “causes that are pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona.” The company said it opposes the initiative backed by Steyer because it would raise power bills dramatically, kill thousands of jobs, eliminate millions of dollars in tax revenue, possibly boost Arizona carbon emissions and make the state less attractive as a place to do business.

APS has said that a nuclear power plant in which it has a stake — the Palo Verde Generating Station — could close if the ballot proposal passes. Benson of Arizonans for Affordable Electricity said in an interview that the other side has “a California billionaire” with “bottomless pockets.”

Steyer said in a statement this year that he was supporting the petition campaign in Arizona to help drive clean energy job growth and economic development. McLeod with Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has noted the prominence of the sun in everyday life in Arizona, saying the idea is to create a system with electricity at a lower cost and less pollution.

The ballot proposal says renewable energy includes options such as solar, wind and small-scale hydropower but not fossil fuels or nuclear energy. It calls for distributed renewable energy such as rooftop solar to account for at least 10 percent of affected utilities’ annual electric retail sales by 2030. It’s proposed as a constitutional amendment.

This week’s litigation takes aim at several aspects of the ballot proposal, from the title and text to an allegation of a signature quota for petition circulators to a suggestion that Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona didn’t properly register as a political committee before an initiative petition application was submitted.

The complaint argues that no more than 106,441 of the signatures are valid. That would be short of the nearly 226,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona previously announced the submission of over 480,400 signatures.

Arizonans for Affordable Electricity contended yesterday that over 195,000 signatures were from people not registered to vote in Arizona. More than 74,000 were on improperly or non-notarized petitions, the group added. Over 20,000 signers didn’t have a first and last name or a signed full name, opponents said, while over 12,500 people signed more than once.

Opponents pegged 168 signatures as having been collected by petition circulators with felony records, which isn’t allowed unless felons have had their rights restored. That had been an earlier point of controversy, but the alleged number of affected signatures is relatively small at this point.

It remains to be seen how the court process will play out this month and in August. The Arizona secretary of state’s office could make an announcement on the vetting process for signatures in the weeks ahead.