Journalists’ Roundtable

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Join us for another edition of the Journalists’ Roundtable, as local reporters recap the big news of the week.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, the Corporation Commission approves changes to how solar customers can offset energy use. Secretary of State Ken Bennett officially announces his candidacy for governor. And a push for the state to be reimbursed for keeping Grand Canyon National Park open during the federal government's shutdown. The Journalists' Roundtable is next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, I'm Ted Simons. Joining me tonight are Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic, Jeremy Duda from The Arizona Capitol Times, and Hank Stephenson also from Arizona Capitol Times. Corporation Commission votes to approve net metering changes for solar energy customers. We have talked about this so much on this program, yet it always seems like we kind of need to reset what we're talking about. Net metering, give us a brief definition.

Mary Jo Pitzl: This is basically the money that the Corporation Commission pays back to solar customers for the solar generated power that those customers feed into the grid. They generate excess electricity during the day. If they don't use it for their household, it goes into the grid. The policy has been to pay those consumers for their contributions.

Ted Simons: And the controversy here or the issue here is how much they get for that excess energy.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Correct. And APS's argument, wait a minute, by us paying them, that masks the costs that we, the utility, incur in providing access to the grid to these customers. APS thinks we should charge them something for the privilege of tapping into our grid.

Ted Simons: Interesting. We've got APS and consumers there, the solar industry and everyone and their brother at the Corporation Commission, not yelling and shouting but coming pretty doggone close. What happened?

Jeremy Duda: Well, the Corporation Commission gave APS a little bit of what they wanted but far, far less than they have been asking for. They have been asking for a very massive cut in these rates, about half, which averages out to about $75 for a solar customer. They ended up getting about $5 a month from these folks. This was a two-day hearing on Wednesday and Thursday. Going in, the solar folks and APS, no one had budged. APS said we need this, the solar company said we need absolutely no change. And the solar people got a little bit of a change, but they feel like this is enough for this industry to still be profitable. That was the whole problem for them. If you decrease these rates that APS is to pay back to the solar customers, it's no longer profitable for people to buy or rent these very expensive systems. They say the solar system will go under. They walked out of this declaring victory.

Ted Simons: Yet APS is saying, we've got to get more money from these folks or the system can't stand. It's an equation that just won't work.

Hank Stephenson: Both sides kind of walked out of it calling this a victory to some degree. I think APS feels it's a victory because they made small increments. Eventually they are going to get further and further along with their goal of jacking up these rates, or I guess it's lowering these rates of what they are paying out to customers.

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think the argument is that as solar users grow, if indeed that market share grows, that will make the problem more apparent. That's part of APS's argument. Also there will be a rate case that will be opened up sometime down the road, which will sort of open up this whole issue about what APS charges all of its customers.

Jeremy Duda: And what APS really got was that even though the monetary gains were small, they got an acknowledgement that these solar customers are pushing these infrastructure costs off to other customers, which probably will help them in a few years. Whether or not it was worth the $3.7 million they spent on this massive PR campaign, the commercials you saw about the guy stealing the sprinkles from the ice cream truck, whether it was worth that remains to be seen.

Ted Simons: 70 cents per kilowatt per month fee will be added, and not now, we're talking first of the year for new customers. If you've got it now, it's grandfathered in, or until the end of the year. It seems like, Hank, we've got the door open, we're moving in that direction. But there still doesn't seem to be much certainty for APS, not much certainty for the solar industry.

Hank Stephenson: No. This definitely was not decided. There was a little stopgap measure that left everybody feeling somewhat happy, not terribly thrilled about it. It'll be revisited in the future probably multiple times. This is obviously a first small step in what will probably play out over the next couple of years.

Ted Simons: And as far as an end game, Mary Jo, something's got to give here. If you have solar and I don't, and you're selling back to the grid and APS needs more money, I'm the one paying for it because I don't have solar. APS says that just won't cut it.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Right. That's where time and the growth of the market and the probably pending rate case, that's where this will all come up again. This is somewhat of a bellwether for other states as they grapple with policies on what should we do about net metering, and how do we handle people who are coming onto the electricity grid but using alternative forms of energy like wind or solar.

Ted Simons: The vote was 3-2, a close vote. Who voted yea and nay for the extra fees?

Jeremy Duda: The yes votes were Bob Stump, the chairman of the commission, Robert Burns and Susan Bitter Smith. No voters were Gary Pierce and Brenda Burns.

Ted Simons: The no votes were no because they thought APS should have gotten more?

Jeremy Duda: Brenda Burns thought APS should have gotten back what the Corporation Commission staff had determined the cost shift was. The staffers felt like APS wasn't losing as much as they claimed but it was probably about $20 a month for each of these customers so she said let's increase this to giving back $20 a month. Pierce wanted to go a lot closer to what APS themselves said they were losing. They were both on the no vote.

Ted Simons: Controversy regarding Gary Pierce in this case. Some folks noting that a family member here running for office, APS may be supporting the family member, all those sorts of allegations are out there. A relationship I think was the word used with APS. What's going on here?

Hank Stephenson: There have been a couple of people making these allegations. One is Will Cardon running against Justin Pierce, Gary Pierce's son, for the Secretary of State. The other is a former Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy who is running again in 2014. Basically it boils down to how close is Gary Pierce with APS, and is he using that influence to maybe funnel some money into his son's campaign. You know, I don't think there's been any real hard evidence of it, but it's been one of those fun back and forths that us in the media like to cover. There were a couple of dueling press releases about it that were a lot of fun a couple weeks ago. I guess Justin Pierce is now saying, I'll just run on clean elections money so you can't make these kinds of allegations. But still, APS or anyone else regulated by the Corporation Commission could come in and fund his campaign through independent expenditure committee so it doesn't really settle things, if there is anything to settle.

Ted Simons: What's settling out there?

Mary Jo Pitzl: No it isn't. This was all an attempt to sort of spotlight Gary Pierce by making allegations about him, trying to use his influence to favor his son in his race. And people will read Gary Pierce's no vote as their biases probably guide them. Commissioner Pierce made a long speech yesterday while they were voting to -- making reference to this sort of smear campaign saying it's regrettable it happens, he understands why these things happen and it shouldn't. He denies he's doing anything to aid and abet his son's campaign, or any outside expenditure that might benefit Justin Pierce's Secretary of State bid.

Ted Simons: A lot of sound and fury here. Where are we at?

Jeremy Duda: The millions of dollars that APS spent on this PR campaign and net metering is only going to fuel accusations that they are going to fund these independent expenditures for Justin Pierce. Gary Pierce I believe was one of the ones trying to help kill off the deregulation push that APS was really against. Plus, we've seen cozy relationships between representatives of APS and Justin Pierce's campaign. Before he switched to clean elections money, he had a big fundraiser at the Phoenix Country Club. The person who organized that was Jessica Pacheco, APS's main lobbyist. Pierce's campaign said we didn't have anything to do with this, we didn't organize it or ask for it. APS says we just did it at their request.

Ted Simons: It's not like APS, the law firm that works with APS, is going to Michele Reagan, for example and saying, you shouldn't be running for Secretary of State?

Jeremy Duda: If you ask them, the Republican that raced along with Pierce and Cardon, Michele Reagan, former senator Jon Kyl who now works for a law firm that has APS as a client, him and Susan Bitter Smith, one of the Corporate commissioners, went to Reagan and said maybe you should get out of this Secretary of State's race. You know what you'd be good at? Corporation Commission. Why don't you run for Corporation Commission instead?

Ted Simons: We will keep an eye on that particular situation. Another situation, far more sober here regarding Yarnell Hill, we've got our first lawsuit. Talk to us regarding the fallen firefighters.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Today the mother of Grant McKee, one of the 19 Granite Mountain hotshots who died in June, filed a notice of claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit. His mother named the State of Arizona, Yavapai County and Prescott and said they are all culpable in the death of her son who died a horrible, horrific death, citing a variety of reasons but basically improper guidance while they were fighting the fire, not giving -- instructing them to move out of the safe area. The big unanswered question we have, these guys were in a safe area, why did they move out of the black and towards essentially this ranch house. The investigative report said, we don't know. The claim said it's a ridiculous order, but she doesn't say who sent that order. So I don't know if there will be other notices of claim, but she is seeking $12 million from each of those entities or will settle for $12 million if they settle it without going to court.

Ted Simons: It seemed as though there was a special frustration with the investigation, because I think she said something along the lines, it was almost useless, a whitewash, basically done to avoid blaming anyone. Is that -- I mean, did that -- that investigation seems to have satisfied absolutely no one.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Correct. I think the investigation, they were signaling before it came out this thing isn't going point -- we're not going assess blame, that's not our job. We changed procedures after, I forget, some report that came out after a disastrous wildfire years ago, so that we do not assess blame because people will use the report to then go and sue, and that's not our intent. So yeah, that report didn't really satisfy anybody.

Ted Simons: That woman lives in California and her 21-year-old son was her only child and that was brought up, as well. Just a horrible situation. We'll see if there are any more of these that will occur.

Ted Simons: Ken Bennett, surprise, he wants to be governor.

Jeremy Duda: This would have surprised anyone in Arizona six, eight years ago before he started broadcasting those intentions. Secretary of State Bennett was elected to a full term in 2010, and about four months after he was sworn in for that four-year term, in January of 2011, he filed an exploratory committee for governor. That exploratory committee has been open for about two and a half years. He's been campaigning fairly actively for a while now. Tuesday he finally pulled the trigger and said, I'm running for governor.

Ted Simons: And he will be running in a crowded field. We're expecting Doug Ducey, Christine Jones, Andrew Thomas, Al Melvin and who knows, maybe Scott Smith, as well. What are they saying about Bennett's chances?

Hank Stephenson: He's definitely in the top tier of candidates. I think everyone is pointing to the main issue he's going to have is he's a clean elections candidate and won't be able to raise a significant amount of money as some of his competitors might be able to. Some of those of things have been evened out by independent expenditure committees that come to candidates' aids. Those kind of end up washing each other out when you've got two independent expenditures for two different candidates, it's about the same amount of money. It still does come down to, a lot of times, how much you can raise.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Secretary Bennett has some name I.D. I mean he's won statewide election and before that he served in the State Senate representing the Prescott North Central Arizona area. It looks from his announcement that he's running a lot on a platform of veterans. In fact, his office is working on a veterans' World War II memorial which will debut next month at the Capitol. I think he's cornered the foreign honorary council market because he had not one, not two, but three honorary councils from foreign countries at his announcement. Representatives of El Salvador, Estonia, and Poland. What struck me is that they all had wonderful things to say about Ken Bennett, particularly his foreign language skills, not in Estonian, Polish or Spanish, but in Japanese. There you go.

Ted Simons: All right, that's interesting. Any big GOP names on the Ken Bennett team yet? Are folks signing up and ready to go?

Jeremy Duda: Not that I've seen so far, it's still pretty early. Doug Ducey is probably the only one rounding up those names right now, but the campaigns really early. A lot of people really haven't picked their sides yet. Bennett's been around the state capitol for a long time, made a lot of friends. He's a very likeable guy, so I'm sure he'll get some of that support. Like Hank was saying it's probably going to come down to the money and name I.D. He starts off with higher name I.D. than most of his opponents there.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Ducey's formally in the race, as is Christine Jones. I don't remember any big announcements such as we saw this week with Ken Bennett. Are we going all cyber on candidate announcements?

Ted Simons: And that's why you kind of wonder where is the parade starting? You don't even know the parade happened yet. Regarding Bennett and policy, he is very big in replacing the income tax with this broad-based low, all-encompassing every transaction sales tax. Believe me, he's big on this and he will talk to you about it. I'm guessing he will talk a lot on the campaign trail. Is that something that would help a candidate in Arizona? Or is that so far out there that maybe not?

Hank Stephenson: I'm not sure how that plays with the public. He hasn't really explained how exactly he's going to accomplish this yet. The details just aren't there to really lay out the numbers and ask people, you know, what do you think of this? Would you rather pay more every time you go to the -- buy anything, and keep your money off your income tax?

Jeremy Duda: I think the devil will be in the details on this, which you really didn't have much of on Tuesday. The problem he's going to run into is he says we can eliminate the income tax, and of course, who wouldn't like paying no income tax. Not even by increasing the sales tax or maybe not even lowering it, but broadening it. The problem is that the income tax brings in about $4 billion a year to the state. I think that's what is projected for the current fiscal year. The sales tax already brings in about $4 billion, as well. Without taxing food, which he said he won't do, I'm not sure how you expand that to bring $4 billion in.

Mary Jo Pitzl: The Democrats have gone down this path for years, lowering the rate, broadening the base but we can't touch food, we'll broaden it and touch medical expenses. They can't find a way to make that work and come out positive. The Democrats have identified a lot of areas to bring in more revenue. The Democrats' aim was never to get rid of the income tax. They wanted to bring more revenue to the state by broadening the base and lowering the rate. They can't sell that now. Bennett is sounding a bit like he's taken a page from their book.

Ted Simons: Last question regarding Ken Bennett's candidacy, we have to start with the Republican primary because that's the side that he will start with. Had some birther issues going on there, some family issues in the past, regarding his son at a camp or something along those lines. Do those things last? Do they make a difference? Impact on a race like this?

Jeremy Duda: The birther thing was much more recent, it was kind of embarrassing. I think that surprised most of the people who know Ken Bennett, that he embarked down that path. He basically said that he was responding to requests from people who emailed his office saying hey, you need to look into Obama's birth certificate. He did it, it got out, he defended himself and kind of doubled down on it, and finally came back and said, okay, I'm convinced he was born in America, he's on the ballot, the issue is settled.

Ted Simons: What does that do in the primary? What does that do in the general?

Hank Stephenson: I think the people who support him will probably let that slide because he's got a long history of being a pretty reasonable guy. I don't see it hurting him a lot in the primary. Probably will come back to bite him in the general if he makes it that far.

Ted Simons: We have some TV ads attacking Tom Horne on the campaign finance issue, it's hard for him to shake that and he's still involved with it as far as the case is concerned. Who is the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance?

Jeremy Duda: It's three or four guys who appear to have access to a lot of money. They have been playing in a lot of races and issues. There doesn't seem to be a lot of connecting threads. Last year in the Republican primary for the House of Representatives they backed Kurt Adams and attacked Matt Salmon. They helped out former State Senator Jerry Lewis in his election. They campaigned against Lester Pearce for Board of Supervisors. This year they actually sued the Maricopa County special health care district over a contract they gave for mental health services. Now they are running ads against Tom Horne saying, you need return the $400 thousand that the Yavapai county attorney says were illegally contributed to your campaign in 2010.

Ted Simons: A watchdog group goes this far with television commercials?

Hank Stephenson: And it's not a campaign ad, that's one of the main points here. They will never have to disclose where this money came from because they don't say the words "don't vote for" or "don't reelect," those key words that you have to say to be considered campaigning. We may never really know how this whole thing came together.

Ted Simons: And the Attorney General's office is already calling this a group of cowards in hiding, this kind of things. We're going to see more and more of this kind of stuff, aren't we?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I believe so. We saw it with the APS rate case, we saw it with the campaigns last year for the open primary and the penny sales tax extension. It's all sort of this dark money thing, so-called because you can't trace back where the money comes from and there's no requirement to disclose. That can be taken care of perhaps with some legislation. But I don't know if we'll see Attorney General Horne championing that kind of disclosure.

Ted Simons: Well, interesting, because that kind of disclosure might have helped him in this particular case, but you just never know. Arizona's Congressional Delegation is finally making a push to get reimbursed for keeping the Grand Canyon Park open? What's happening?

Jeremy Duda: They sent an angry letter to the National Park Service saying Arizona spent $460 something thousand to keep the park open during the shutdown. We want you to give it back. The park service says we don't really have the authority to do this; you guys have the authority to do this because you're in Congress. Based on the fact that the park service are says they don't even have the authority to do it, these folks may have to hunker down and vote on it.

Mary Jo Pitzl: There is a bill that Representative Gosar I think signed on to that would reimburse not only Arizona but other states that ponied up money during the shutdown to keep national parks in their areas opened up. But yeah, the legislature -- Congress appropriates, that's their job.

Ted Simons: And the entire congressional delegation signed on except for --

Hank Stephenson: Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva down in southern Arizona. It's strange they wouldn't be amenable to this idea, I mean the federal government pay us back for that. I'm not sure what that's about, it's strange.

Ted Simons: Do you know why?

Jeremy Duda: I'm not sure.

Mary Jo Pitzl: We don't know why. But there's an argument -- a couple arguments. One, if you really want to start whittling away at the federal deficit, here's a start, a little bit of savings. But most likely it's more a belief that you shouldn't have given any ground on the shutdown. The whole point of shutting down the government was to shut down. Even though it was a limited shutdown. Shut everything down and don't start to nibble away at the edges, which is what started to happen as the shutdown dragged on. We'll let this happen, we'll let this happen. I think Pastor and Grijalva, in that camps is we can't. You've got to hold firm to get the vote on opening up the full government.

Ted Simons: Before we go, we learned today Ben Miranda died at the age of 64, former state lawmaker in the House, about 8 years or so, married to current Representative Catherine Miranda. Legacy of Ben Miranda. Who was Ben Miranda?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Ben Miranda was a maverick within the Democratic caucus at the legislature. Somewhat his own man, often at odds with his own leadership. But he was steadfast in his defense of the rights for the underprivileged. He came from an underprivileged background, got himself through law school. He was fighting for the little man.

Jeremy Duda: Yeah, you know, he came up in the 80s and 90s working with Cesar Chavez, with United Farmworkers. More recently, one of his former colleagues was telling me today that every Saturday at his law firm he would hold open hours to do pro bono work for people who couldn't afford legal services. So I think a lot of this will be a legacy.

Hank Stephenson: He was even rumored to be running for the House again. I talked to him about this a couple of weeks ago and I talked to his wife about it, and they said no, no truth to that rumor. It was one of those things though; it was tough to stomp out. It goes to show that he was still around, still active, still a player and he was taken too soon.

Ted Simons: Again, as far as his history in the House, at a time when the Democrats -- did they have much power when Ben Miranda was in the House?

Mary Jo Pitzl: No, their caucus is stronger today than it was during the eight years he served.

Ted Simons: Sad news there, we should mention we just got the news today and we really don't know what happened here.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Correct. I think everybody was waiting for a statement from his wife, Representative Catherine Miranda, who happened to be in Orlando at a legislative conference when the news came. That's a long, sad flight back.

Ted Simons: No kidding. Well, we will leave it at that. Thanks for joining us on the Journalists' Roundtable. Monday on Arizona Horizon, the director of the Residential Utility Consumer office will discuss the new net metering changes, and we'll learn how DPS plans to crack down on distracted driving. Those stories Monday on Arizona Horizon. Tuesday, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton makes his monthly appearance to discuss city issues. Wednesday physicist Lawrence Krauss discusses science news, including an update on dark matter. Thursday, the status of winter air quality in Maricopa County will be discussed. Friday, it's another edition of the Journalists' Roundtable. That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us, you have a great weekend.

Mary Jo Pitzl:Arizona Republic; Jeremy Duda:Arizona Capitol Times; Hank Stephenson:Arizona Capitol Times

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