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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal: Avista’s $200,000 for French, Kuney TV ads puts timing, Hydro One sale in spotlight

In this Nov. 18, 2015, file photo, Avista Utilities lineman Matt Anderson de-energizes an electrical line so arborists can remove a tree in Pullman, Wash. (Geoff Crimmins / AP)

Avista Corp. gives a lot of money to local candidates. If it leans in any political direction, it is toward incumbency – toward those already in power.

This cycle, it’s given two grand each to County Commissioners Al French and Mary Kuney, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, and legislative candidate Shelly Short – all Republican incumbents. Even Rep. Matt Shea extracted two grand from Avista this year. One can only hope the energy company did that more for his solidly held legislative seat than his nutty gun rallies and secessionist fantasies.

It has given $1,000 to Auditor Vicky Dalton (a Democrat), and Senate candidate Jeff Holy (a Republican), and $500 to GOP assessor candidate Leonard Christian. It’s contributed in recent years to liberal City Council members Candace Mumm and Kate Burke – as a candidate – and conservative Mayor David Condon and liberal City Council President Ben Stuckart.

That’s by no means a complete list. A whole lot of politicians have collected Avista checks over the years – $500, $1,000, $2,000. It’s nothing new.

But Avista’s recent decision to spend $200,000 to signal-boost the candidacies of French and Kuney with TV ads is a dramatic, puzzling departure from business as usual.

Why such a large push, and why now?

Avista’s chief spokesman says it’s simple: The organization admires and appreciates Kuney and French, and wanted to create positive advertisements for them to draw attention in a year when down-ballot races might be overlooked. At a time of overwhelmingly negative political ads, often paid for with dark money, Avista is putting its name on positive advertisements, he said.

“Give us credit for 1) trying to do something positive … and 2) we’re not trying to hide from it,” said Collins Sprague, the director of government relations for Avista. “We’re trying to be the good guys here, given our values.”

The opponents of Avista’s proposed $5.3 billion sale to the Canadian firm Hydro One Ltd. ain’t buying it. Rob Chase is Kuney’s opponent and a vociferous critic of the deal.

“I’m not that naïve to think that it’s just that Al French and Mary Kuney are so wonderful,” he said. “I think they see me as a threat.”

‘Hand that feeds’

The Hydro One merger is under review by state regulators now, and won’t come before the county commission for direct action. But Chase has proposed fighting the sale at the county level – using a long-shot effort to apply a federal statute that state officials overseeing the deal say isn’t relevant.

Critics of the deal also say they’re interested in trying to form a public utilities district to buy Avista. Putting such an effort on the ballot – however realistic it is – would require a signature drive or the support of county commissioners.

Chase and other Hydro One opponents like Michael Bell, a Democratic candidate for the state Legislature, say that the spending on the TV ads – along with Avista’s overall strategy of larding the campaign coffers – has created a soft zone of acceptance, or at least silence, among local public officials about critical issues surrounding the deal.

“They don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them,” Bell said.

Sprague insists there is no connection between the Hydro One deal and its decision to spend $200,000 on TV ads for Kuney and French.

He defended the company’s political activities in an interview this week as necessary for any company in highly regulated industry. It is focused on benefiting ratepayers and the community, he said.

Part of that is promoting “good, honorable public servants,” he said.

Avista’s utility division does not fund its political activities; its corporate parent does that, and the spending comes from shareholder profits – it’s not financed by your power bill. Sprague said that the goal is to help make people here prosper, which will help the company prosper.

Avista also has lobbyists in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

But the spending on the County Commission race was the biggest single financial push Avista has put behind any candidates that I could find. Sprague acknowledges it’s one of the company’s largest. It’s also unusual for Avista because it was an independent expenditure. Such spending is unlimited and required to be carried out without coordinating with campaigns.

Sprague notes that Avista did not try to mask the spending behind some clever PAC rigamarole, as is often the case.

“If we support a candidate through independent expenditures we’re going to put our name on it and we’re going to be transparent,” he said. “We’re going to let people know we’re doing it.”

‘No public benefit’

Bell, Chase and a group of others in the region are opposed to the Hydro One deal for a lot of reasons, and have been meeting to organize ways to combat the proposal. They come from opposite sides of the political spectrum – Chase is a conservative whose fears about the deal include concerns about globalization and foreign authority and Bell is a progressive Democrat who opposes corporate personhood and corporate political donations, which he calls “legal corruption.”

They oppose the deal because they fear it will result in higher electricity bills here, and a loss of control over the process, given that Hydro One is owned in large part by the province of Ontario and has much higher rates. They note that Hydro One has had financial struggles in recent years, and went through a corporate shakeup just a couple of months ago, and don’t want to see ratepayers on the hook for bailing the company out.

“I just see no public benefit,” Chase said.

Then there are the big bucks for honchos – the top 13 execs at Avista would be paid a combined $18 million on the day of the sale if it goes through. The company says such payments are common, and intended to keep executives focused on running the business while a deal is pending – but it’s the kind of thing that makes people see the deal as feather-bedded for bosses, not ratepayers.

The company insists that the sale would be structured to protect ratepayers here from interference from the Canadian government and from future rate hikes if Hydro One runs into financial trouble. Avista would be a subsidiary to Hydro One under the deal, but company officials said Avista’s headquarters will remain here and decision-making authority would remain in Spokane.

Members of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, which will make a decision on the merger in December, asked a lot of skeptical questions about Canadian influence and protection for Northwest ratepayers during a hearing last week in Olympia.

Bell sees the unprecedented spending by Avista as a clear effort to prevent critics of the deal like Chase from gaining a louder voice. He said he felt Avista operated in bad faith with critics of the deal when a company representative met with them in September. It was, he said, presented as an effort to hear them out and “extend the hand of friendship.”

It was also just a couple of weeks after Avista had made the independent expenditures on behalf of French and Kuney.

“The whole time they’re telling us that, they’d already purchased ads to the tune of $100,000 against Rob Chase,” Bell said.