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SLEEPLESS IN PHOENIX

It's 3 a.m. What were only minor problems in the daylight are nightmares in the dark. Who can sleep with thoughts closing in like tarantulas stepping across my pillow? What if as a child I'd been adopted by Mia Farrow? Or, even worse, what if Carl Kunasek is elected to the Corporation Commission?

Carl Kunasek deserves to be a Corporation Commissioner about as much as Don King deserves to be a Breck girl.

The Corporation Commission decides how much all of us must pay for life's essentials, like water, gas, electricity and phone service. It is the single elective office that most directly slams your wallet. In Arizona, the giant utilities that dispense these resources became giants because they are state-sanctioned monopolies. There is only one Arizona Public Service Company. Only one Southwest Gas. What's more, the law guarantees these businesses a profit.

Did you get that last part?
The profit is locked in.
For many Republicans, state-sanctioned monopolies with guaranteed profits are not enough. Traditionally, the GOP candidates for the Corporation Commission believe utilities ought to make an outright killing. Carl Kunasek is another one of those politicians whose concerns for widows and orphans is a lot like John D. Rockefeller's. This approach to economics has left all of us with outrageous air-conditioning bills that have financed big cigars for the utility boys.

Don't take my word for it. Here's the public record.
In the ten years the Republicans controlled the commission, from 1975 to 1984, the charge per kilowatt hour rose from 4 cents to 10 cents. In the ten years the Democrats controlled the commission, from 1985 to 1994, the charge rose a quarter of a cent.

In the '80s, after a decade of Republican "aye" votes on the commission, Arizona Public Service Company possessed the largest nuclear power plant in America. APS was gobbling up so much profit that it slipped through a loophole, formed a holding company to siphon off excess cash and went on a buying spree worthy of Arianna Huffington on an espresso jag. The utility boys bought into the Phoenix Suns, chased uranium mines, speculated in harebrained land schemes and evolved into highly cologned big shots with the best tables at Vincent's.

All of a sudden, the suits at APS had pizzazz. Mothers were telling graduating seniors to think about careers in electricity, and reporters began asking utility CEOs for their opinions on the homeless. An older executive at Tucson Electric even began showing up at public functions with an exotic dancer who was not his wife.

Then it all went to hell. The boom became a bust. The nuke plant ended up on the industry's watch list because it was so mismanaged. APS' wildcat investments went belly up, and the utility was almost taken over by outsiders from Oregon.

Voters revolted and elected two consumer-advocate Democrats to the commission.

Now along comes Carl Kunasek.
I'm sure you've heard his radio ads, just a dripping Hopalong Cassidy Western earnestness as an aw-shucks twangmeister tells us how ol' Billy Bob Carl Kunasek is all for us li'l cowpokes. You'd think the man was Ralph Nader with chaps.

And you'd think wrong.
Let me give you just one specific.
In 1986, the federal government caught Exxon gouging its customers. The oil company was forced to cough up rebates, and Arizona's citizens were scheduled to get a $21.6 million rebate. Congress specifically ordered that the money be given to low-income families.

But that isn't what happened.
And I've got to tell you, my hat is off to Kunasek and the utility boys, because what they pulled off was equal parts pork and gall.

APS has this lobbyist, Marty Shultz, who is the mullah of utility moola. Shultz concocted a plan whereby Arizona utilities would scam fully one-third of the money, $7 million.

Think of it; step back and admire it. One giant conglomerate gets nailed for ripping off consumers, then another giant monopoly sucks up the fines and penalties. That's why these folks are rich and you're not.

As Senate president, Kunasek pushed Shultz's legislation. The cover story was that the $7 million would be used to pay for a discount to be extended by Arizona utilities to elderly customers.

In reality, Kunasek's bill simply underwrote utility expenses.
"It does not appear from the present record that the elderly poor will be the primary beneficiaries," wrote George Breznay, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Appeals and Hearings, when he notified the Arizona Department of Commerce that he would not kick loose the money for the program. "The program's primary effect is likely to reduce bad debts for each participating utility. In many instances, the reduction of a utility's bad debts increases its profit margin and dividends and provides a direct benefit to shareholders."

Now, obviously, George Breznay is one of those Washington Beltway prigs like Michael Kinsley who says all the right things but who has no appreciation for the sheer balls-out, dancing-on-your-toenails artistry of a Marty Shultz.

But I've come to expect that kind of creative pas de deux from the utility boys and their political partners. What's mine is theirs. And lately, the phone, gas, water and electric boys have been absolutely inspired.

Here are just a few examples to help you stay focused:
In 1991, APS sought a 21 percent rate increase.
From 1989 to 1994, Tucson Electric sought rate increases totaling 51 percent.

Currently, U S West has a 41 percent rate increase on your phone bill pending before the commission.

Unhappy at the reception they've received from the Corporation Commission, the utility boys have returned to the statehouse and pushed through legislation limiting commissioners to one term. This effectively puts bullets in the careers of the two consumer advocates, Marcia Weeks and Renz Jennings, who were elected in reaction to the utility excesses of the '80s.

Nor is that the end of it. A new law specifies that if a rate increase sought by a utility isn't acted upon within nine months, the increase is automatically granted.

Kunasek has admitted that he agrees with these pieces of special-interest legislation. Of course, these admissions have occurred in campaign appearances in which four gray-haired ladies from the League of Women Voters sit in an empty gymnasium on Candidates' Night in Eloy, Arizona. For the tens of thousands of voters who hear his radio spots, Kunasek sells himself as the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger who will challenge the utilities.

I don't believe it.
Kunasek's opponent, Debbie McCune-Davis, is such a long-standing, staunch consumer partisan that her mere presence is likely to kill any cocktail party. She does not swing from the chandelier, because lighting fixtures do not have seat belts. McCune-Davis helped create the Residential Utility Consumer Office, better known as RUCO, which professionally represents the interests of average Joes before the Corporation Commission. She opposed the legislation that bestows automatic rate increases and, because of her record, has snapped up almost every significant consumer endorsement on the radar screen. She's the real goods.

In the fall of 1993, Governor Fife Symington, who has led the charge to neuter the Corporation Commission, called Kunasek to see if he would be interested in an appointment to the office should the lone Republican, Dale Morgan, retire.

This is Kunasek's memory of what he told the governor: "I said, 'I don't know what the hell they do. I'll have to get back to you.'"

This past August, the 62-year-old Kunasek, a former pharmacist, was in the race, and quite charming in explaining his candidacy.

"I need it for psychological reasons," Kunasek told the Phoenix Gazette. "Everybody should work. Too many years in the drugstore, I saw people come into retirement with enthusiasm. They went out in a box." Kunasek's candor is as revealing as it is disarming. I don't want to see Carl go out in a pine box. But just because he's got too much time on his hands doesn't mean I want to see him swap a seat on a park bench for a seat on the Corporation Commission.

Let him take up exotic dancers.


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