Olson And O’Connor Say Reliable Utility Service Can Be Ensured By Protecting Workers From Mandatory Vaccinations

Olson And O’Connor Say Reliable Utility Service Can Be Ensured By Protecting Workers From Mandatory Vaccinations

By Terri Jo Neff |

The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) could vote as early as next month on a proposal that would ensure the reliability of electric, gas, and water service across the state by protecting thousands of utility employees from termination for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccination.

Commissioner Justin Olson and Commissioner Jim O’Connor are advocating for the ACC to adopt a policy and associated rules to prohibit the agency’s regulated utilities -also known as public service corporations (PSCs)- from compelling employees to be vaccinated to keep their jobs. Each violation of the policy could come with a hefty fine under the proposal. 

“The Biden administration has unconstitutionally sought forced vaccinations and has intimidated companies into complying with this inappropriate policy,” Olson said of the proposal presented to the other three commissioners last week. “Workers should not have to choose between losing their jobs or being forced to receive a vaccine against their will.”

But Olson told AZ Free News on Tuesday he has another concern with the mandates, one that involves potential negative impacts to Arizona’s regulated utilities due to losing valuable employees through COVID-19 related resignations or terminations.

“Our utilities rely on a highly experienced and trained workforce.” Olson said. “We cannot allow Biden’s unconstitutional vaccine mandate to drive away critical employees whose skills are necessary to maintain safe and reliable power and water.”  

The letter Olson and O’Connor sent to their fellow commissioners points out that the agency has the authority in the Arizona Constitution to “make and enforce rules, regulations, and orders” related to the safety and health of employees of PSCs.  

“This is especially true when the federal government is intimidating companies to develop, implement and enforce such mandatory vaccine policies,” the letter states.

There are currently two federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates which could impact Arizona’s utilities. One is an executive order issued by President Joe Biden requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies.

According to Olson and O’Connor, the broad language of the executive order implicates the very PSCs which the ACC regulates “that have legally enforceable agreements with the federal government, including military bases in Arizona.”

The other mandate was issued by OSHA. It requires all private employers with 100 or more employees to implement a vaccination policy that can require stringent, invasive testing.  The OSHA mandate is currently on hold while under review by federal courts across the country.

One of those courts, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, said OSHA’s mandate “raises serious constitutional concerns” and grossly exceeds the agency’s statutory authority.

Olson and O’Connor have asked that their concerns be placed on the agenda for discussion and possible vote at the ACC’s Dec. 15 and 16 open meetings. 

ACC’s Olson Seeks To Avoid Litigation While Giving APS Customers More Options

ACC’s Olson Seeks To Avoid Litigation While Giving APS Customers More Options

By Terri Jo Neff  |

On Tuesday, Justin Olson will call on his fellow members of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to move forward with providing Arizona Public Service Company customers with alternatives for procuring electricity, and in turn avoid possible litigation stemming from the agency’s failure to comply with state law.

Olson told AZ Free News there is a mandate in Arizona law, specifically ARS 40-202(B), which clearly states that “a competitive market shall exist in the sale of electric generation service.” In fact, about a dozen applications have been filed with the ACC over the years by companies interested in providing such service.

However, those applications have not been acted on, Olson said. 

“It’s time that the Corporation Commission complies with state law and authorizes competitive power companies to provide energy services to Arizona residents,” he said. “Customers deserve an alternative to the government granted monopoly.” 

The monopoly Olson is currently focused on is held by Arizona Public Service Company (APS), whose October 2019 rate increase request is slated to be discussed at the commission’s Oct. 26 meeting.  

APS, a for-profit owned by S&P 500 company Pinnacle West Capital, currently serves 2.7 million customers in 11 of Arizona’s 15 counties, from Coconino County in the north, Yuma County in the southwest, and Douglas in the southwest corner of Cochise County.  The majority of its customers, however, are in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Olson will introduce an amendment to APS’ current ratemaking case to call attention to the lack of competition enjoyed by the company. The amendment would move the ACC toward compliance with the statutory competitive market for electric generation mandate while bringing hope to APS customers who told commissioners about being dissatisfied with the company’s rates and customer service.  

“My amendment frees captive APS customers and empowers them to choose what company will provide energy to their homes,” Olson explained. “This amendment will unleash the powerful forces of the marketplace to benefit all Arizonans.”

Even if his fellow commissioners vote down the amendment to the current APS rate case, Olson said he is committed to bringing the ACC into compliance with state law. Doing so is the right thing, he says, to bring more options and better service to Arizona’s electricity customers.

It will also ensure taxpayers won’t end up footing the bill if any of the stalled applicants initiate legal action.

“I will continue to advocate for the Arizona Corporation Commission to come into compliance with ARS 40-202(B) while doing what I can to improve options for all customers,” Olson said.

Olson has been on the ACC since 2017. He announced earlier this month that he has entered the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Rural Communities Stand To Gain From Water Project Funding Options

Rural Communities Stand To Gain From Water Project Funding Options

By Terri Jo Neff |

Tucked here and there among the $12.8 billion budget package signed into law last week by Gov. Doug Ducey are numerous water-related funding opportunities for rural counties across Arizona.

Among the budget items in SB1823, the general appropriations bill, are allocations of $3 million for water project assistance grants to cities and towns that provide water in Navajo and Apache counties. Another $2 million of water project assistance grants are available to irrigation districts in Cochise and Graham counties.

Those funds are in addition to $160 million moved from the state’s general fund on June 30 to the Drought Mitigation Revolving Fund. Of that, up to $10 million may be used for grants which facilitate the forbearance of water deliveries by June 30, 2025, while another $10 million may be used for Arizona State Land Department grants related to water use.

Ducey also signed into law changes to Arizona’s tax code which allow water utilities regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to deduct contributions toward construction from their Arizona gross annual income. This can be particularly beneficial for companies which serve smaller communities where it can be difficult to spread out the cost of construction projects.

In addition, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Gail Griffin (R-LD14) to provide $40 million for the Water Supply Development Fund for assistance to water providers for improvements to water infrastructure and projects located in rural communities.

The ACC is encouraging owners and operators of small water utility companies which are regulated by the Commission to take advantage of the funding, which can go as high as $1 million per project, to improve their water systems and benefit customers. There is also an option of a $100,000 grant which does not require repayment.

Eligible water utility companies must serve at least 15 customers or at least 25 people for at least 60 days of the year, be located outside of an active management area, and be within a county with a population of less than 1.5 million people. The funding can be used for myriad purposes, including acquiring water or water rights; purchasing or refinancing debt related to water supply development projects; conveying, storing, or recovering water; reclaiming or reusing water; capturing or controlling stormwater; and replenishing groundwater.

Utilities can apply for the WSD Fund loans or grants to the Arizona Water Finance Authority.

“I encourage every regulated water utility that qualifies for these funds to take advantage of them as expediently as possible for the benefit of their customers,” ACC chair Lea Marquez Peterson said last week.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-LD25) acknowledged the importance of the water funding allocations in a post-budget signing statement, calling the funding for infrastructure projects a “key to securing Arizona’s future, and one of our highest priorities.”