by Scott Thistle, Sun Journal
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — The $38 million fallout from a missing “and” — along with a push by Republican lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage to create a new Cabinet-level Department of Energy — highlights the ongoing struggle the state’s top policymakers face as they try to combat Maine’s high energy costs.
But a disagreement over funding has divided Democrats and Republicans and stalled a pair of key bills in the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.
Beyond a split over how to fund the $300,000 per year, four-person department, lawmakers on the panel also are in disagreement over whether state law should be changed to give the governor the power to appoint the director of the Efficiency Maine Trust.
Republicans say the trust — as soon as its full funding is restored — will be responsible for more than $70 million per year in rebates and grants doled out to consumers and businesses alike and designed to do everything from replacing light bulbs to upgrading heating systems.
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is sponsoring the bill to create the new department, said the state needs to amp up its efforts in the energy arena but also that the efficiency trust — with a budget is larger than the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — and the ratepayers who pay into it deserve better oversight.
“That’s a lot of money; it’s a lot of money that can be spent without, technically, a lot of legislative oversight,” Fredette, the House minority leader, told his colleagues during a recent House floor debate on the bill. The bill would fix the typographical error that cut the word “and” from state law and with $38 million from the trust’s annual allotment from ratepayers.
“As energy issues continue to emerge, not only here in Maine but regionally, we recognize the importance they have had, quite frankly in many ways the reduction of manufacturing here in Maine,” Fredette said. “When you talk about jobs — and, yes, even union jobs — a lot of those jobs that have gone away, and we are talking about tens of thousands of jobs. A lot of those jobs have gone away because we cannot compete in Maine or even regionally in terms of the cost of energy compared to other parts of the country.”
Fredette’s bill would convert the governor’s Energy Office, now headed by Patrick Woodcock, to the Energy Department, making Woodcock the energy commissioner. It also would add two or three people to state government to help Woodcock work on lowering energy costs.
Beyond lowering income taxes, curbing welfare abuse and ending domestic violence, lowering energy costs is one of the top clarion calls of LePage’s administration.
During a recent State House celebration to recognize Maine’s business community, LePage kicked things off, talking about energy and urging the Legislature to move more expeditiously on the issues.
High energy costs, according to LePage, are among the key problems strangling Maine’s economy, hurting big and small businesses alike while eroding the purchasing and investment power of everyday consumers.
A day before, LePage urged Congress during a trip to Washington to act quickly on the federal level to make gas pipeline permitting less cumbersome for New England.
LePage said he and his allies were determined to lower electricity prices in Maine.
“I’m telling you that, despite what people tell you, this train has left and is not going to come back until we have lower cost energy in the state of Maine,” LePage said. “The people demand it, the businesses need it and we need prosperity in Maine, so despite what you hear we are going to move forward.”
In 2014, according to data available from the federal Energy Information Administration, Maine had the 11th-highest average kilowatt price for electricity in the nation, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Maine’s average price across all sectors — including residential, commercial and industrial — was 12.66 cents per kilowatt, or more than 5 cents more per kilowatt than the state Washington, which has the lowest-priced power at 7.15 cents per kilowatt.
LePage said the lack of progress in the state’s Legislature was not going unnoticed but was not hindering his efforts regionally.
“You know we are working very hard, despite the fact we haven’t had much success upstairs,” LePage said, referencing the legislative chambers above him. “But we’ve now reached out to the other New England states, and four out of the six governors are working to expand hydro and natural gas to New England.”
LePage’s statement highlights the sources of energy he believes in, but it also draws parameters that conflict with the goals Democrats have to expand other sources of renewable energy in Maine, including wind and solar power.
In a compromise move earlier this month, Fredette withdrew an amendment to the “and” fix based on a promise he said he was given by Democratic leaders that his energy department bill also would be given a vote soon.
Fredette said he was promised the bills would travel on a parallel track through the Legislature, but so far that hasn’t been the case. As of Friday, lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee were awaiting a language revision of Fredette’s bill.
Meanwhile, the bill fixing the missing “and,” which was approved by the House of Representatives on May 6 on a 138-1 vote, is parked in the Republican-controlled Senate, awaiting action from the committee on Fredette’s measure.
Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, a committee member for the last three sessions, said Friday there is broad bipartisan support for creating a Department of Energy. She said having just two people in the Governor’s Energy Office available to focus on energy policymaking and reforms isn’t enough.
“This is my third term on (the energy committee) and I’ve felt from the beginning that having just two people working on this area that has such a big impact on our economy and our everyday lives, quite frankly, is just ridiculous,” Beavers said.
Beavers said Democrats want the department so its staff can focus on energy policy and lowering costs in Maine and not necessarily to provide “oversight” to the Efficiency Maine Trust. Beavers said the agency already has a large amount of oversight, including from the Legislature.
But she said Democrats also believe because the governor appoints all members to the Efficiency Maine Trust’s board of directors, who then hire the executive director, the governor does not also need the power to appoint the executive director.
“When you have a board that’s 100 percent appointed by the governor, how much more control do you want?” Beavers asked.
Instead, Democrats are proposing a process for hiring the executive director that involves confirmation in the Senate following an appointment by the trust’s board of directors.
Democrats also are proposing funding the Department of Energy with revenue from the trust and from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Fredette’s bill would fund the department with money from the trust.
Beavers agrees there are key philosophical divides between Republicans and Democrats on what the right mix of energy sources needs to be in order to bring costs down. She said Democrats also take a longer view when it comes to moving Maine to more renewable sources of energy and further away from fossil fuels.
She said disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over how much renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and tidal should be subsidized by the government also are sharp.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have praised Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office, and Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, for the work they continue to do on energy costs in Maine.
Lawmakers have noted there’s little doubt Woodcock would become the state’s first commissioner of energy, were Fredette’s bill to pass.
Fredette also has noted that should the governor be given the ability to appoint the executive director of the trust, Stoddard would be LePage’s pick.
The call for more oversight is equally a call for better collaboration and does not reflect any criticism of Stoddard, Fredette previously said. His bill also provides staff resources to help ensure the goals of the new department would be achievable, Fredette said.
“Having some real staff, having the opportunity to engage the executive director and the board (of the Efficiency Maine Trust) on programs — that’s what this is all about,” Fredette said. “Patrick Woodcock is only one person; there’s only so much he can do in a day.”
On Friday, Woodcock, who has worked with the Legislature on a range of complicated and sometimes controversial energy laws, said the sticking points between Democrats and Republicans on the bills being held up are relatively small comparatively. Woodcock voiced some frustration and bemusement with the delays.
“There have been much more difficult knots to untie in Augusta,” Woodcock said. “These matters are not complicated, and I really do think there is consensus to address them.”
Woodcock also candidly notes the elevation of his role to that of energy commissioner and the addition of two more staff people to some degree is a matter of “semantics.”
“But I do think it is reflective in some ways of state priorities in who is sitting as a member of the Cabinet,” Woodcock said. “In terms of substance, I think the office would perform more effectively having an individual who is working specifically on regional issues and then another person who is really watching to ensure state programs, including Efficiency Maine, are working as effectively as possible.”
On Tuesday, members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will meet again to work on a host of bills, possibly including amendments and votes aimed at moving Fredette’s bill to the full Legislature for consideration.