By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
At $12 million per letter, a missing “and” in a state law has proven an expensive error now that the state Public Utilities Commission used inadvertently flawed statutory language to cut funding for Maine’s energy efficiency work by $36 million.
The PUC earlier this week took an unexpected vote regarding funding for the Efficiency Maine Trust, deciding, 2-1, that a fee to be collected from electricity ratepayers applied only to utility transmission and distribution costs. Advocates for Efficiency Maine argue that the charge was meant to be a percentage of total retail electricity sales, along with transmission and distribution charges, a much larger amount.
Lawmakers should put a quick end to this debate by amending the law to restore the missing “and.”
At issue is the 2013 omnibus energy bill, sweeping legislation that included provisions to increase the state’s natural gas supply and to reopen consideration of an offshore wind project to let the University of Maine apply for ratepayer funding.
The law, passed when lawmakers overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto in the waning hours of the 2013 legislative session, also allows the PUC, not the Legislature, to set the budget for Efficiency Maine, the state agency that oversees residential and business energy efficiency programs. But lawmakers established that the budget for electricity efficiency programs should amount to no more than 4 percent of certain electricity sales. LePage had vetoed the bill because he worried it gave too much authority to the PUC and that there were better ways to lower energy costs.
The law defines those sales as “total retail electricity transmission and distribution sales.” Hence the debate over the missing “and.”
“I think the language is pretty clear and unambiguous,” PUC Chairman Mark Vannoy, who voted to limit the funding, said Wednesday in a telephone interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I just was not comfortable making a decision that added language to a statute.”
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, a champion of the 2013 energy bill, said the law clearly contained an error in not including the “and” before transmission and distribution.
“In this case, the statute they were given contained a clerical error. At the end of the day, the lesson to be learned here is that, in the business of lawmaking, words matter,” he said in a statement.
The Newport Republican suggested “everyone take a deep breath, slow down a bit, and let’s look at the possible solutions to this issue.”
The solution is simple — lawmakers have a duty to amend the law to clarify with unquestionable specificity what they intended in 2013 when they passed the law.
Efficiency Maine’s most recent three-year work plan estimated there would be at least $45 million in cost-efficient electricity savings projects in Maine last year and another $60 million worth for 2015 and 2016.
The higher cap, if the “and” is included, would allow Efficiency Maine to receive up to $59 million per year to fund those efficiency projects. The lower cap, approved by the PUC this week, would limit that to about $23 million.
The trust invested more than $36 million in energy efficiency over the last year, which will result in nearly $265 million in avoided energy costs over the lifetime of the changes undertaken, such as installing more efficient machinery and lighting. This rate of return shows the efficiency investments are wise investments.
And it points to the need for the Legislature to fix its error so Maine families and businesses can continue to realize the benefits of using less power.