Imagine, for a moment, that you're a public utility executive – expensive car, tailored suit, corner office overlooking downtown Phoenix. You desperately don't want a ballot measure mandating clean-energy targets to succeed.
What do you do?
If you're an executive at Pinnacle West Capital Corporation – the parent company of public utility Arizona Public Service – you spend millions of dollars examining signatures.
Opponents of a clean-energy constitutional amendment escalated the battle on Thursday, filing a lawsuit that challenges the validity of signatures in order to block the measure from appearing on the ballot this fall.
The ballot measure would require Arizona's public utilities to achieve 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind (but not nuclear power) by 2030. Arizona's largest public utility, vehemently opposes it, and thousands of hastily scrawled lines could be the difference between victory and defeat.
The Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona committee submitted more than 480,000 signatures in support of the ballot measure earlier this month. But the lawsuit claims that less than a quarter of those signatures are valid.
The clean energy foes say that 195,339 people who are not registered to vote in Arizona signed the petition, making them ineligible. The opponents also allege that thousands of other petition signers did not include their full name, signed the petition more than once, or signed a non-notarized petition.
A mind-blowing amount of money is at play.
The opposition committee, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, is flush with cash from Pinnacle West. The group has paid nearly $6 million to a petition company, part of an effort to examine the hundreds of thousands of signatures and to comb through the background of petition-gatherers.
A spokesperson for the Clean Energy committee tore into the lawsuit in an interview with Phoenix New Times. Rodd McCleod called the APS-backed opposition effort a collection of "ridiculous claims being made by people who have no credibility."
"These guys are in fantasyland," McCleod added.
The clean energy proponents need 225,963 signatures in order to qualify for the November ballot. The opposition campaign says that its review identified only 106,441 valid signatures.
Any signature-gathering effort will have a "margin of error," McCleod explained. He said that he expects the clean energy campaign to win in court. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.
The ballot measure is a product of NextGen America, a political action organization founded by the billionaire Democratic donor and vocal Trump opponent Tom Steyer. APS has denounced the measure, arguing that the amendment will force the closure of the Palo Verde nuclear plant west of Phoenix.
The lawsuit also argues that the text of Clean Energy initiative is misleading to petition signers.
Nuclear power is not included under the constitutional requirement to obtain 50 percent renewable power by 2030. But according to the lawsuit, the ballot measure's use of the phrase "clean energy" conflates all forms of clean energy, including nuclear, in the mind of the voter.
The clean energy foes also contend that the Clean Energy campaign improperly used signature quotas as a condition for petition-gatherers' continued employment. The lawsuit cites an Arizona law that bars petition-gatherers from receiving "a thing of value" based on the number of signatures they collect.
The plaintiffs include Republican state lawmakers Vince Leach and John Kavanagh, Arizona Chamber of Commerce President Glenn Hamer, and Mesa Mayor John Giles. They are requesting a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent the secretary of state from placing the initiative on the ballot.
According to a spokesperson for the Arizona Secretary of State, the office conducts a review of signatures, but a lawsuit is the exclusive process for challenging a ballot measure.
"Lawsuits are part of the process; if the judge says the measure is not qualified for the ballot, we keep it off," Matt Roberts wrote in an email.
In a second-quarter campaign finance filing, APS parent Pinnacle West disclosed that so far the company has contributed more than $7,536,000 to the committee to defeat the ballot measure.
And as the Arizona Capitol Times noted earlier this week, the anti-Clean Energy campaign has paid almost $6 million to Petition Partners, a company tasked with reviewing the signatures as a precursor to Thursday's lawsuit.
Matthew Benson, a spokesperson for the APS-backed opposition campaign, denied that there is a partisan element to the lawsuit, despite prominent conservatives like Leach and Kavanagh signing on as plaintiffs.
He said that the petition-gathering effort was sloppy.
"These are not close calls," Benson said. "These are obvious blatant defects that should have, quite frankly, been caught by the initiative campaign before they turned them in."
Benson would not elaborate on the massive sum of money that Arizonans for Affordable Electricity has paid to Petition Partners, merely saying that every penny spent by the committee has gone to defeating the ballot measure.
According to the lawsuit, two separate experts in petition review examined the signatures with professionally trained teams.
In spite of the opposition campaign's constant fear-mongering that warned Arizonans about felons collecting signatures – an illegal practice under Arizona law – its review discovered only 168 signatures that were collected by petition-gatherers with a felony conviction.
For months, the opposition campaign paid for a hair-raising ad campaign that urged Arizonans to "decline to sign" the clean energy petition. The ads portrayed sinister-looking petition-gatherers wearing prison jumpsuits.
Benson delivered an Olympic-level of spin when asked about this revelation, which shows this APS-backed ad campaign to be almost entirely hollow.
He tried to claim an improbable victory, arguing that after they exposed the practice, the Clean Energy campaign jettisoned circulators who had a felony record.
"How is it possible that the campaign turned in any petitions from individuals with a felony record?" Benson said. "That’s what is boggling to me."
Clean energy proponents say the money spent by Pinnacle West to defeat the ballot measure says everything.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
McCleod argued that the lawsuit is just the latest example of the utility company digging into its pockets to deny voters a choice in November. In spite of the lawsuit casting doubt on the signatures, he argued that there is broad support in Arizona for a constitutional amendment that pushes the state's utilities to invest in sources of renewable energy.
"Almost half a million people have said they want renewable energy," McCleod said.