The last election cycle is barely in the rearview, and the 2023 mayoral and council race is already on the horizon, so it could be easy to overlook Tucson holding a special election for voters this May to decide on a new agreement between the city and Tucson Electric Power. 

Let Arizona Luminaria break it down for you.

What are we voting on?

Proposition 412 is a ballot measure to approve or deny a new franchise agreement with TEP to provide electricity in Tucson.

“If the agreement is approved by voters, the extra revenue generated would be used to cover the cost of undergrounding infrastructure and to fund efforts that support the City’s Climate Action Plan,” according to the Prop. 412 informational pamphlet from the Tucson City Clerk’s Office.

The proposal would renew the existing agreement with TEP for 25 years. Changes include a new fee for customers that would raise money to put some power lines underground. It also would help pay for Tucson climate-related projects outlined in a 200-plus page report with “24 strategies and 122 actions,” as well as estimated cost ranges. A new city committee would be created to oversee the use of that fee money.

When and where do we vote?

It’s an all-mail election, so you can expect your ballot to show up shortly after they’re sent on April 19. Put it back in the mail by May 10 in order to ensure it is received by 7 p.m. on Election Day, May 16.

Voters can also drop off ballots from April 19-May 16 at the Tucson City Clerk Elections Center, 800 E. 12th St. and two Pima County Recorder’s Office locations: 240 N. Stone Ave. and 6550 S. Country Club Road.

You can also drop off the ballot you received in the mail or get a replacement ballot and vote on Election Day, May 16 from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following sites:

To check your voter registration, or register to vote by April 17 to participate in this special election, visit the Pima County Recorder’s website.

What is the franchise agreement?

By city and state laws, a voter-approved franchise agreement has to be in place to allow an electric utility to use public rights of way, and cities can charge fees for that use.

The previous agreement, approved by voters in 2000, would expire in 2026. 

The new agreement keeps a 2.25% fee and adds a new 0.75% fee.

Why does TEP want to raise costs?

TEP says they’ve added 14,000 new customers since 2018, which requires more infrastructure. They’re also facing more extreme weather events, expanding their use of solar and wind-generated electricity, and dealing with rising natural gas costs.

Meanwhile, separate from the ballot proposition, TEP is proposing another rate increase, which would increase the average monthly bill for a typical homeowner by about 12%, or more than $14 over current levels. That proposal has faced some stiff opposition from the Sierra Club and other groups.

“Tucsonans have been clear about the clean energy future we deserve, and it’s up to the [Arizona Corporation Commission] to make sure that TEP meets ratepayer demands,” said Catalina Ross, energy program coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter in a news release. “Our community is tired of paying for the pollution we inhale, and as Arizona sits in the bullseye of climate change, decisions like these will impact the health of our communities and our planet for years to come.”

These proposed hikes come on the heels of yet another bill increase, of about 6%, that went into effect in early 2021. Those rate increases will be decided by the Arizona Corporation Commission, not by city voters.

Joe Barrios, TEP’s supervisor of media relations, also addressed broader concerns about the series of rate hikes, saying that there are more customers, using more energy. He said an aging grid and the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, costs money.

What does a “yes” vote mean?

If the measure passes, the city would extend its franchise agreement with TEP, basically agreeing to continue doing business with them. 

A yes vote will “support long term electric reliability for our customers,” said Barrios.

Approval for Prop. 412 would allow TEP to put part of a controversial new transmission line underground. The original plan was to a series of tall metal poles and wires running from 36th Street and South Kino Parkway to just north of Grant Road and Interstate 10.

Neighborhoods around the University of Arizona and the city pushed back on the original TEP plan, asking for underground lines — less unsightly, but significantly more expensive to build and maintain. 

What does a “no” vote mean?

A no vote is mainly a vote against a price increase.

The city would not go dark if Prop. 412 doesn’t pass. According to their website, TEP would continue operations under its existing franchise, which continues through April 2026. 

But the company would need to reinforce its current system in central Tucson “as a stopgap measure” while figuring out a longer-term fix. According to TEP, if Prop. 412 doesn’t pass, electric bills would go up even more, though they don’t specify by how much.

If it doesn’t pass, Barrios made clear that “customers shouldn’t panic.” 

“But for us, it is a concern,” Barrios said. “It’s maintenance that needs to be addressed.”

Perhaps most concerning to residents, especially those who don’t live where they want to hang more wires, is the cost increase. According to TEP, the fee related to Prop. 412 would be less than a dollar per month for most residential households. Small businesses would pay about three dollars more.

What’s in it for climate action?

TEP says it will continue expanding its use of alternative energy sources, including solar and wind farms. TEP also says revenue “could be used to fund projects that support the city of Tucson’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.”

The climate plan also includes efforts to identify options for moving from fossil fuel power plants to clean and renewable energy which could be done in partnership with Tucson Electric Power or the council could explore community-based recommendations that would “create a public power utility that would be fully-owned by City of Tucson,” according to the report.

“Over time as we move away from coal and shut down the facilities that we do have, we all have to make investments to replace that capacity,” TEP’s Barrios says.

Who’s for it and who’s against it?

TEP is making their hard case, and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero backed the proposition in a recent video.

The Pima County Republican Party, in a recent newsletter, encouraged members to vote no, citing rate increases.

The Tucson Climate Action Network also is opposed to Prop. 412, saying it doesn’t do enough for climate change.

Learn more 

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...