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Money prevails as energy choice ballot measure craps out in Nevada and Steyer-funded RPS ballot measures see mixed results

Special election edition: Nevada voters reject Question 3 as Tom Steyer nets an initial win with just one of his renewable energy mandate ballot measures. Nevada’s voters yesterday roundly rejected Question 3, the ballot measure that would have ended monopoly utility regulation and allowed the state’s electricity consumers to choose among competing suppliers. The measure was rejected by roughly two of every three voters, marking a resounding victory for the unprecedented $63 million or more spent by the NV Energy-funded effort to defeat the ballot measure. NV Energy, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway business empire, is the predominant utility in Nevada.

The vote yesterday was almost an exactly inverse outcome from two years ago, when the energy choice ballot measure was approved by more than 70 percent of voters. In order to effectively change the state constitution to end monopoly regulation and allow electricity competition, the ballot measure must be approved by voters twice.

So what was the defining difference between the two elections and their decidedly lopsided outcomes? NV Energy stayed neutral in the 2016 election and did not wage a fear campaign to defeat the measure. This time around the campaign against Question 3 outspent the “yes” campaign by a 2-1 margin, and defeated the ballot measure. The “yes” campaign was largely supported financially by Las Vegas Sands Corp. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a leading funder of GOP candidates and policies, and the data services giant Switch.

The defeat of Question 3 was among a suite of ballot initiatives that oil and electric industry interests spent big money to successfully defeat yesterday. The list includes the rejection by Washington State voters of Ballot Initiative 1631, which would have imposed a modest $15/ton carbon emissions tax; Colorado voters’ rejection of Proposition 112, a measure that would have restricted hydraulic fracturing in the state; and the defeat in Arizona of Proposition 127, a measure funded by billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer that would have imposed a 50 percent renewable energy mandate by 2030.

“The industry wins are stark examples of how money-fueled negative messaging can persuade voters,” Ben Geman writes in the Axios Generate daily newsletter.

“Typically money does win,” said Denise Roth-Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “If you have a tremendous amount of money you can get your message out,” Roth-Barber said in a telephone interview. But she emphasized that money doesn’t always prevail, citing examples where industry interests spent big to pass a ballot initiative but voters were unpersuaded.

But the experience in Nevada with Question 3 – which The Nevada independent dubbed “the most expensive ballot question in Nevada history” – appears to offer an object lesson in money prevailing. Without heavy spending by NV Energy to defeat it, nearly three in four voters approved Question 3 in 2016. Yesterday, after NV Energy spent tens of millions of dollars in a campaign to persuade voters that electricity competition would threaten renewable energy development and stable electricity rates, some two in three voters rejected the measure.

The object lesson doesn’t end there. In Arizona, Steyer’s Prop 127 went down in flames after utility interests in the state – particularly Pinnacle West’s Arizona Public Service – spent more than $25 million to defeat the measure. In contrast, Nevada voters resoundingly approved by a 3-2 margin Question 6, another Steyer-funded ballot measure which would require Nevada to meet 50 percent of its electricity needs with renewable energy sources by 2030.

The difference in those two outcomes is that, like in 2016 with Question 3, NV Energy stayed on the sidelines and did not oppose Question 6, which must be approved by voters a second time in order to take effect. It remains to be seen whether NV Energy will remain on the sidelines in two years when Question 6 comes before voters again, or will repeat its Question 3 playbook and spend big to defeat it in the required second vote.

In other election results, concerns about massive cost overruns at the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion project – and resulting rising electricity costs for consumers – apparently did not dissuade voters from supporting the two Republican incumbents in Georgia’s Public Service Commission elections. Chuck Eaton and Tricia Pridemore, who generally are pro-nuclear and pro-Southern Co., appear to have prevailed against challengers who had questioned the $30 billion in spending on the nuclear expansion effort and leaned in support of greater renewable energy development in the state.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican incumbent Corporation Commission member Justin Olson, one of three sitting commissioners who have supported reconsideration of electricity competition in the state, and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman, appear to have prevailed against Democratic challengers.

Buried lede: The Arizona Corporation Commission’s open meeting got under way today with an agenda item that could involve a vote on a rulemaking (RU-00000A-18-0284) that would modify the Arizona Corporation Commission’s Energy Rules regarding retail electricity competition. Details to follow.

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