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New Arizona Corporation Commissioner "Nervous" About Conflict of Interest

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Andy Tobin says he's "nervous" and "concerned" about a conflict of interest that will prevent him from voting on many major decisions as the newest Arizona Corporation Commission member.

Tobin's a Republican ex-lawmaker who served as Speaker of the House and, for a short time, director of the now-vanished state Weights and Measures Department.

Governor Doug Ducey appointed him recently to fill a position on the five-member commission that was vacated last month by Susan Bitter Smith, who was elected in November but forced out of office in December by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich over her own conflicts of interest.

Bitter Smith is a registered lobbyist for Cox Communications but claimed she didn't have a conflict because she lobbied only for the cable TV end of Cox, which isn't regulated by the commission. Tobin's conflict is less direct than Bitter Smith's, but it will have a big effect on his ability to perform as a commissioner.

After his appointment by Ducey last month, Tobin hired a chief of staff and a policy adviser as he prepared to take the position. Then, last week, he met with commission lawyers and told them, among other things, that his son-in-law had been hired in November by SolarCity as an assistant inventory specialist.

SolarCity is at the center of some of the most contentious and important issues faced by the commission, including attacks on several of the members considered to be less enthusiastic about solar subsidies.  

The nationwide solar company offers solar-panel installations for homeowners funded by electric utilities' solar electricity buy-back programs in a subsidy called net metering. The subsidy, in turn, is funded by electricity customers who don't use solar panels.

The question of how much money solar users should be able to save because of net metering has been extremely contentious in the past couple of years, with utilities seeing the increase in solar customers as a threat to their ability to survive — and to keep providing the 24/7 power everyone's accustomed to.

New Times covered the issue in a July 2013 feature article. That November, the Commission allowed Arizona Public Service, Arizona's largest electricity provider, to levy an extra monthly fee on solar users that wiped out part of their savings.

Salt River Project last year levied an even larger fee on solar users, causing SolarCity to all but abandon SRP territory in its quest for new customers. It's also in the process of suing SRP. The result of the utilities' resistance has been a slowdown in residential solar installations that is expected to grow worse by 2017 as utilities seek more fees on solar users. Tucson Electric Power has been seeking a similar "tax" on solar users.

Adding to the political intrigue is the issue of "dark money" apparently spent by APS fighting the solar companies — a plan that seems to have included installing two candidates perceived as APS-friendly, Doug Little and Tom Forese, both elected to the commission in November. Meanwhile, the Checks and Balances Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group attempting to probe the text messages of Commissioner Bob Stump and pushed for the investigation into Bitter Smith, is funded by a group that's funded by SolarCity.

In September, APS agreed to hold off on a request for another solar user fee until hearings that may settle the issue of whether net metering benefits or costs APS customers overall. But a rate case is planned this year in which the Commission could allow APS to raise solar fees enough to hurt the home solar industry even more.

Into this mess comes Tobin, who can't vote on most, if not all, electricity-related matters. Tobin's still allowed to vote on other important issues — like the regulation of railroads.

"I'm a little nervous about this," Tobin says of his vote-stopping conflict. "I'm disappointed . . . The truth is, I am concerned about it, because I came here to vote on everything."

"[But] I can't really argue with the Corporation Commission lawyers," he tells New Times. The former congressional candidate and lawmaker says he's used to making public disclosures and has no problem with the system. Asked whether his son-in-law has talked about quitting SolarCity, Tobin says his daughter and her husband live in a rural town near Prescott, where there aren't many job opportunities.

Besides being a politician, Tobin's a former insurance businessman and ex-CEO of a small aerospace firm. He's got friends in high places: Ducey installed him as head of the Department of Weights and Measures, then made him director of the Department of Insurance after the Weights and Measures office was consolidated into the Department of Agriculture. He also was acting director of the Department of Financial Institutions.

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