State watchdog group targets environment, insurance rates

Earlier this year, Diane Brown, executive director of the consumer watchdog Arizona Public Interest Research Group, was recognized by the Arizona League of Conservation Voters for leading efforts to improve environmental and conservation policies in Arizona.

Brown sat down for an interview recently to talk about Arizona PIRG, which is based in Phoenix, and its role in helping protect Arizona consumers.

Question: Which issues are priorities for PIRG in Arizona this year?

Answer: For Arizona PIRG, the vast majority of our time is spent in places like the Arizona Corporation Commission relating to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona Department of Insurance with some time spent on the Legislature.

In particular, Arizona PIRG has focused on utility rates and increasing energy efficiency. This has the social and health benefits of improving health and air quality. The Arizona Corporation Commission recently approved the nation’s most stringent energy-efficiency standard, which requires all electric utilities in Arizona to increase their energy efficiency (reliance on solar, wind and other renewable resources) by at least 15 percent by 2025.

Q: Would that lead to an increase in utility rates? Why would PIRG support that?

A: We’re looking at the the overall benefit for consumers not only short term but also long term. There may be instances where a rate increase is justified, particularly if it means there will be an increase in energy efficiency that will in the long term result in (utility) bills being lower.

Arizona PIRG is also working towards a Phoenix-Tucson passenger rail.

Q: Hasn’t this high-speed train been under discussion for years?

A: The idea of a Phoenix-Tucson rail has been discussed for decades, but for the first time last year, the Arizona State Transportation Board approved a rail plan for the entire state. They are proposing the next steps would include an environmental-impact study for the rail.

We’ve also been working on insurance issues. Under the federal health-reform law, any proposed insurance-rate increase of 10 percent or more needs to be made public. The Arizona Department of Insurance is the state authority that will implement this policy for Arizona, and it is looking at doing it soon instead of letting the federal government do it for us.

Q: Is Arizona unique when it comes to insurance-rate oversight? Why is this authority important for our state?

A: Arizona PIRG is working to be sure the agency moves forward in a way that would increase consumer participation and taxpayer involvement in these issues. Ultimately this policy change would give the state the authority to deny any unjustified insurance-rate increase. At this time, Arizona Department of Insurance cannot (prohibit) insurance-rate increases from going into effect. But the Arizona Department of Insurance needs that authority to protect consumers.