The Rate Making Process
The rates charged by Arizona's investor-owned utilities are established by the Arizona Corporation Commission ("ACC" or "Commission"). The Commission authorizes a utility to charge rates which will recover expenditures which are appropriate and prudently incurred, and which provide an opportunity to earn a fair return on the utility's capital investment. A utility initiates the process to obtain a rate increase by filing an application with the Commission. The application must be based on a "test year" of actual expenses and investments during a recent twelve-month period. All of the utility's cost data are drawn from its own records. The Commission requires that the utilities follow a standardized system of accounting procedures that assures that the data can be easily reviewed and verified by the Commission, RUCO and others.
In its application, a utility may propose certain adjustments to its actual test year costs and investment. Historical costs and investment may be adjusted by annualizing changes which occurred during the test year, such as payroll increases or tax changes, making them appear as if they had been in effect for the entire year. In addition, historical costs may be normalized to eliminate the effects of abnormal variations that actually occurred during the test year, such as weather-related changes in consumption. Other adjustments may be proposed to include the effects of known and measurable changes that occurred after the end of the test year, such as wage increases and certain costs related to recently completed construction projects.
Upon receiving the utility's application and written summary or testimony, the Commission's staff reviews the application to confirm that it contains all the necessary accounting information. If the application is complete, the Commission's staff prepares a letter of sufficiency, and a docket number is assigned to the case. The determination of sufficiency triggers the Commission's "timeclock" rule, which establishes a deadline by which the Commission staff must file its Staff Report or testimony on the application, and a deadline by which the Commission must issue a final order on the application. A hearing date is fixed for an application that requires a hearing.
After the application is determined sufficient, RUCO and other interested parties are permitted to intervene in the case. As intervenors, parties have the right to obtain additional information from the utility to assist in their review of the application. In addition, intervenors may present evidence of their own or on the application and may have attorneys cross-examine other parties' witnesses and submit written briefs, which present their positions on the issues in the case.
When the Commission staff has completed its investigation, it issues a recommendation in a Staff Report or written testimony. RUCO and other intervenors also provide their recommendations in the form of written testimony prepared by their analysts or consultants. The utility has the opportunity to respond through the filing of additional written testimony of its own.
In many cases, prior to the hearing on the application, the Commission holds public comment sessions in the service territory if the utility. These meetings are intended to allow customers to express their opinions about the rate request and to provide the Commission with information that the customers feel is relevant to the case. It is not required, nor is it expected, that customers making comments at these meetings be represented by legal counsel.
The Commission then holds a formal hearing on applications which require hearings. At the hearing, the utility, the Commission staff, RUCO, and other intervenors present witnesses, offer evidence, and conduct cross-examination of other parties' witnesses on the issues raised in the filed reports and testimony. Issues commonly disputed in rate cases include: which expenses should be charged in rates to ratepayers; what a normal or prudent level of expenses should be; whether all of the utility's investments in physical facilities were prudently made and whether the facilities are needed for the provision of utility services; how much of a return the utility's shareholders should be allowed to earn on their investment; and how the cost of providing service should be allocated to, and recovered from, the utility's various classes of customers.
After the hearing is concluded, the Commission's administrative law judge reviews the evidence and the parties' arguments and issues a Recommended Order. The Recommended Order sets forth a recommended decision on all contested issues and recommends how much of a rate increase, if any, the utility should receive. The parties are permitted to file exceptions to the Recommended Order, asking the Commission to disregard the conclusions of the Recommended Order and suggesting an alternate resolution. At a public meeting, the Commission considers the administrative law judge's order, and the exceptions to it. The Commission can adopt the Order as originally written, incorporate any of the suggested exceptions, or make its own amendments.
After the Commission issues its final decision, the parties have 20 days to request the Commission to reconsider its decision. If the Commission declines to grant a rehearing, the parties may appeal the decision to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Decisions of the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. Filing an appeal does not prevent the rates approved by the Commission from taking effect.