by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA — Maine lawmakers Wednesday took the first steps toward fixing what’s become known as a $38 million typographical error in a law that funds the state’s energy-efficiency programs.
But looming over any potential fix is the less-than-subtle hint that Republican Gov. Paul LePage will veto the correction if it doesn’t also include the creation of a new state energy department and a Cabinet-level energy commissioner, to be appointed by LePage.
The error — an omission of the word “and” — occurred in a comprehensive energy bill passed into law in 2013. The bill was vetoed by LePage, but lawmakers overrode the veto.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office, told members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee on Wednesday that the section of law with the error in it was the one to which LePage had the strongest objection.
It’s unlikely, Woodcock suggested, that LePage would sign into law a bill fixing a flaw in the measure, which would allow an increased fee for Maine electricity ratepayers to be used to fuel a host of energy-efficiency rebate programs.
Woodcock said the administration was willing to consider other ways forward, but the governor does not support a provision he vetoed two years ago.
Before the committee are two bills — one that would simply make clear the legislative intent of the 2013 law by installing the missing “and” into the law and another that makes the language correction and establishes the new energy department, which would include a commissioner, a deputy commissioner and two staff members.
Supporters of that latter option say it provides new and needed oversight for what’s projected to be $70 million in state discretionary spending in 2015.
Supporters of LD 1221, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Wednesday that LePage intends to reappoint Michael Stoddard as executive director of the Efficiency Maine Trust.
Woodcock would be appointed to the new Cabinet position, were it to be approved by lawmakers.
Under Fredette’s proposal, the new department would be funded with about $300,000 a year from the trust and not from the state’s General Fund.
“This change provides a focus and expertise acutely needed in Maine state government now, a change I support, even if it represents a small growth in state government,” Fredette said.
The amount the trust spends each year “far exceeds any amount first contemplated when it was initially created years ago,” Fredette said. He said lawmakers, including himself as a co-sponsor of the 2013 law now in question, should have added the provisions he is suggesting.
But opponents of that change and those in favor of a simple correction to the omitted “and” in the 2013 law say the creation of a new department should be considered as a stand-alone issue.
They also said the Efficiency Maine Trust is already overseen by a board of directors appointed by the governor, and the trust must also satisfy the demands of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which is made up of three commissioners appointed to six-year terms by the governor.
The committee Wednesday also heard from a number of home energy audit and weatherization business owners, who said that without a fix, a loss of $38 million in already-planned-on funding for efficiency rebates would set back their businesses and the energy savings from which homeowners and other businesses had hoped to benefit.
Bo Jespersen, the owner of a home weatherization business in Augusta, said when heating oil prices dip to more reasonable levels like they did this past winter, it’s easy to become complacent. But for the lowest-income Mainers without weatherization assistance, another spike in heating oil would be crippling, he said.
Jespersen said he advocated for the 2013 energy bill because he knew it would help thousands of homeowners lower their heating and electricity costs.
He said that based on the 2013 legislation, he made investments in his company, including a new location and a $57,000 spray-foam insulation machine so he could serve more customers.
“So I fulfilled my commitments then that we were going to grow and we were going to do that when the omnibus bill passed,” Jespersen said. “So this one hurt a little bit when we heard this was actually going to be an issue and that our funding may be subject to something as small as it is.”
Jespersen said he supported the straightforward and simple fix of restoring the “and” to the law. That fix is offered in LD 1215.
“I’ve held up my end of the bargain, and I’m hoping you guys will now hold up yours,” he said.
State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who served on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that created the 2013 law, said the current committee had an obligation to honor their work and to show the public their government could be trusted to fix an honest mistake without political gamesmanship.
“This ‘and’ is not just about $38 million that would go to invest in reducing our energy costs — coming out of the harshest winter we have seen — that ‘and’ for me represents Democrats and Republicans,” Russell said.
She added, “We didn’t just shake hands on it, we didn’t just look each other in the eye and agree, we didn’t just drink bourbon afterwards. This is about investing in our homes and our businesses and creating predictability in the marketplace. It is absolutely essential that we stand by the deal that we negotiated.”
Lawmakers on the committee will take up both bills during work sessions in the weeks ahead.