PHOENIX — The Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates and sets rates for private utilities in Arizona, has three open seats in 2020.
The five-member commission is one of only a handful in the US that is both elected rather than appointed and enshrined in the state's constitution. Still, former Commissioner Kris Mayes, who served from 2003 until 2010, says the fourth branch of government doesn't get nearly the attention that the other three do, despite it touching the lives and pocketbooks of most Arizonans.
"But it's definitely-I believe, it's actually a more powerful and more important branch of government, than the governorship, than the legislature, given how much influence over our daily lives the Commission has," she said.
The largest is electric utility Arizona Public Service (APS) which provides power to more than 1 million customers across the state. It's a powerful position that Mayes says the founding fathers of the state anticipated and put the commission in place to regulate.
"Our founding fathers established the Corporation Commission and gave it great authority relative to many other states. Because they wanted a strong entity, a strong branch of government to really oversee these utilities and make sure that they're being fair to Arizonans," she said. "To make sure that their rates were fair, and to make sure that they were providing electric and gas and water services in a way that is safe and secure for all Arizonans."
It's a mission that came into question when APS secretly spent millions of dollars in Commission races for favored candidates in 2014 and subsequently received a still-contested rate restructuring and rate increase in 2017. Two commissioners from those years remain. Current chairman and APS adversary Bob Burns, was the lone 'no' vote for the hike. His seat is one of the three being vacated. Commissioner Boyd Dunn, who vote in favor of the 2017 hike was removed from the 2020 ballot due to signature discrepancies.
In early 2020 APS publicly vowed to end political spending in Commission races.
In addition to utilities, the Commission is tasked with ensuring the safety of the railroad crossings, and pipelines that carry gas and hazardous materials around the state. It is also responsible for licensing corporations and regulating firms that sell securities.
"Maybe some of the issues that the Commission deals with aren't all that sexy, but they're really important," Mayes said.
And given the climate crisis, and the current fight over how quickly Arizona will require utilities to move to clean energy, Mayes says this year's election could be one of the most significant yet.
"It's bedrock to our economy here in Arizona and the decisions that the Corporation Commission makes, especially in the next five years, as we go toward clean energy, as we move toward making clean energy, a big part of our economy. This is a position that's going to be a great import to voters, I think and I hope," she said.
ABC15 will profile the six candidates vying for the three open seats on the Commission over the next several weeks leading up to early voting.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said only one commissioner from the 2017 rate hike vote remains on the ACC. That has been corrected to reflect that two remain.