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(A screenshot of the Arizona Corporation Commission debate. Credit: PBS/Arizona Republic)
Today we're going on a tour of a corner of your ballot you may not know anything about, but is absolutely crucial for state climate action.
First things first: Have you registered to vote? Here's Complexly's guide to How to Vote in Every State. Want to know at least a little something about who’s running in your congressional district? Voting doesn’t have to be perfection, so even a little knowledge is power - here's ProPublica's customizable User’s Guide to Democracy.
As a local-focused but cross-geographical newsletter, some times I feel like I’m bopping around the country looking for interesting but widely applicable stories. But now that it’s time to do an election-focused newsletter, I find myself with a real problem of scale. How do I cover something that’s going to be useful to as many of my readers as possible instead of digging down into one place?
Taken as a whole, congressional elections can make a huge difference on federal climate policy, and including what kind of funding is directed to states and localities.
But there's almost 500 congressional races this year; very few have had climate as a recurring theme. So ahead of this election, let's talk about a crucial position in every state: utility commissioner.
They have a mix of names, but utility commissions are the government bodies that regulate electric, gas and other utilities. They approve or deny rate increase, utilities’ long term infrastructure plans and set rates on what utilities can charge and what costs they can recover from residents.
Commissions range in their proactiveness on climate, but all have significant power in directing what a state’s energy supply looks like in the future. Remember the seven people with a huge impact on North Carolina's greenhouse gas emission reductions goals?
Commissioners are either directly elected or appointed: more than a dozen commissioner positions in nine states are on the ballot directly in November. In states where commissioners are appointed or nominated by the governor, more than two dozen seats on utility commissions will be up within the first year of the next term.
In a few cases, this year’s direct or gubernatorial election or could have significant impact on the make up of the commissions — more on this below.
But if you live in California or Wyoming, your governor’s races — and therefore the open slots on the agency — are unlikely to be dramatically changed. Similarly, in Louisiana elections, the public service commission will not be swept this year by climate-hawks.
I want to aim for usefulness, not delusional completeness. So I've listed of every state with these positions up for grabs within the next year, without a lot of additional details. But I'd still encourage you to take a look if this is the case in your state — these seats come up regularly and a single member or two can dramatically remake these small boards. What these commissions do and who serves on them deserves attention between elections. That’s when they make the most consequential decisions — and when residents can “vote” in other ways through public comment and in some cases petitions.
Two of the five seats on Arizona’s Corporation Commission are up for election this year, and the extremely polarized but also extremely odd nature of Arizona politics makes this the only commissioners' race I'm aware of that had a televised debate.
Arizona’s commission has already made some consequential decisions this year. In January, the commission rejected in a 3-2 vote a plan for 100% renewable energy in Arizona that was five-years in the making. One of the three Republican commissioners changed his vote at the last moment, saying the rules were unnecessary and had "concluded the utilities are serious and sincere with their commitments to clean energy..
The four major candidates are Nick Myers, a policy advisor to a departing Republican commissioner; Kevin Thompson, a Mesa councilman and former gas lobbyist; Sandra Kennedy, a former Democratic state senator running for re-election to the commission, and Laura Kuby, a former Tempe councilwoman who works at Arizona State University.
Based on this questionnaire from the Arizona Republic, the candidates positions on climate and energy hews along party lines (the two Republican candidates literally answered together).
There is, as far as I can tell, no publicly-available polling on this race, but they will be on the ballot alongside at least two very competitive elections: Arizona governor and and one Arizona Senate seat. The governor’s race is a dead heat, while the Senate race is slightly trending in the direction of Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly.
So even if straight ticket voters tick off the two Republicans or two Democrats without knowing anything else about what the commission does or the candidates' positions, its unclear how that will shake out — and if it will change the balance of power on the commission.
Read more on Arizona's governor and commission races and how they will affect the state's policies on energy and the environment.
Other directly elected races in 2022:
Montana - Two of five seats up. Earlier this year, one seat's Democratic primary was cancelled because of lack of candidates.
North Dakota - Two of three seats up
South Dakota - One of three seats up
Nebraska - Two of five seats up. Candidates in both seats are running unopposed. (Nebraska's public service commission actually only regulates gas, not electricity. But as I've written before, the utility board elections in the state had an even bigger impact)
Oklahoma - One of three seats up
Louisiana - Two of five seats up. One district all the candidates are Democrats, the other district all Republicans. Also, every single candidate is male.)
Alabama - Two of three seats up, with two candidates per seat. The Democratic primaries in both seats were cancelled due to lack of candidates.
Governor's races with commission spots coming open in 2023
New Mexico's Public Service Commission (PSC) is undergoing a sea change. In 2020, a majority of New Mexico voters in 2020 approved making the PSC a three-person, governor-appointed board. Currently the PSC is a five-person board, elected by geographic district. While the ballot measure language has been challenged for not explicitly mentioning the it would remove the ability to elect comissioners, the change is set to start this upcoming January.
The board itself has faced multiple personnel scandals in the past decade and angered the current governor on at least two rulings. New Mexico, as I've written before, is trying to have it both ways, gaining the financial windfall of being an oil-boom state but also passing climate legislation. The PSC is squarely in the middle of that tension.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is up for re-election on November 8. If she wins, she'll nominate three people from five-short listed applicants. No more than two of the commissioners can be of the same party.
Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is in a rough spot. There are currently four vacant slots on the six-person commission.
Why? It’s actually over climate policy. For several years, Pennsylvania's Republican Senate leadership has declined to take up any of the nominations for the PUC. It's part of a lengthy legal and political fight with Democratic Governor Tom Wolf over his attempts to get Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the East Coast’s cap-and-trade program.
Wolf is term-limited and the race to succeed him between Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano hasn't really featured much back and forth on environmental issues. The number of vacancies though, means Pennsylvania’s next governor would have the chance to vastly remake the agency , the Pittsburgh Gazette reports:
Without fresh appointments, the winner of the governor’s election in November would not only get to nominate replacements for the three vacant seats, but also a fourth seat that is scheduled to expire in April 2023, held by the commission’s chair, Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, a Democrat. Under that scenario, a new governor could dramatically reshape the commission.
As the election draws closer (and Shapiro seems more likely to win), suddenly there's movement. In late September, Wolf and the Senate leaders brokered deals on a series of nominations, including three to the PUC. If they're voted in before Election Day, the next governor will still have a say on the fourth vacancy, as well as one expired term next year.
Other states where governor’s races are close or close-ish and utility commission seats are up within the first year of the next governor’s term.
Wisconsin: One of three seats up
Kansas: One of three seats up
Oregon: One of three seats up
Maine: One of three seats up
Minnesota: One of five seats up
Michigan: One of three seats up
Florida: Two of five seats up
Colorado: One of three seats up
Texas: One of five seats up
Other states with potentially open spots but governor's race is not expected to be competitive:
California: Three of five seats up
Wyoming: One of three seats up
Iowa: One of three seats up
Illinois: Two of five seats up
Ohio: One of five seats up
Tennessee: One of eight seats up
South Carolina: Two of eight seats up (NB: South Carolina's PSC is elected by the State Assembly)
Vermont: One of three seats up
Massachusetts: Two of three seats up
Connecticut: Two of three seats up
Rhode Island: One of three seats up
There's also this exceptionally well-timed "Beginner's Guide to Public Utility Commissions" that I wish I had the time to write.
Do you have a local or state election race you're following closely because of the candidates' views on climate? Reply to this email to tell me more.
More local climate stories
Another relevant climate action race in New Mexico this year: Land Commissioner.
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Conflicting priorities between labor groups and climate advocates have played out over and over in state governments. Will labor provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act change that?
Maine’s prevalence of small farms with low-lying, hand-harvested crops makes the state a good candidate for blending solar energy and food production on the same land, but farmers may not take the risk without funding for pilot projects.
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