He says the Legislature must approve his energy agenda before he will fix a clerical error that cut $38 million from energy-efficiency programs.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA – In case there was any uncertainty, Gov. Paul LePage made it clear Friday that he will veto a bill to correct a $38 million clerical error unless it also contains other energy policy changes sought by his administration.
The Republican told an energy conference Friday that he wants his current Governor’s Energy Office elevated to a Cabinet-level agency within his administration. LePage specified that he also wants the commissioner of that office to oversee the executive director of Efficiency Maine, the quasi-state agency that administers energy efficiency programs.
Absent those changes, LePage said he would not sign a bill to correct a one-word clerical error – the omission of the word “and” in a massive 2013 energy law – that could make a $38 million difference in annual funding for an Efficiency Maine program used by homeowners and businesses.
“Let me tell you folks: you better have a veto-proof Legislature and Senate because it is coming right back at you,” LePage told attendees of the energy forum organized by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “Because if you are not interested in accountability, I am not interested in giving you that three-letter word.”
The governor’s comments highlight the political challenge facing lawmakers as they try to fix what all parties acknowledge was a simple mistake during the final drafting of the 2013 law.
The bill allowed the Public Utilities Commission to add a surcharge of 0.58 cents per kilowatt hour to electricity rates for a program that helped Mainers purchase millions of low-energy light bulbs last year and subsidized energy-efficiency improvements at Maine businesses. That works out to $3.13 a month for the average monthly residential bill.
But the omission of a single “and” in the final language led the PUC – in a divided vote last month – to set a cap of effectively $22 million a year for the program rather than the roughly $59 million anticipated by the Legislature.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed a quick-fix bill that would re-insert the missing “and” in the law. But House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, proposed an alternate bill this week that corrects the clerical error, creates the Cabinet-level energy office and allows the governor to nominate the Efficiency Maine director.
Fredette described his bill as the only way to fix the law without incurring a LePage veto.
Speaking at the energy conference, LePage said he wants to see more “efficiency, effectiveness and accountability” at Efficiency Maine. He compared his push for greater oversight to recent scrutiny of the Maine Turnpike Authority and Maine State Housing Authority that led to changes in those agencies.
But Rep. Sara Gideon, the Freeport Democrat who is leading the push for the simple one-word fix, rejected suggestions that Efficiency Maine is not accountable, pointing out that the program is scrutinized by the ISO-New England power grid and the PUC, is audited by an independent auditor and must submit an annual report to the Legislature. Also, all of the current board members of Efficiency Maine Trust are LePage appointees, Gideon said.
Gideon said she hopes that lawmakers from both parties will see the importance of addressing the issue quickly.
“If the governor wants to extend his control as governor, then he should say that, but this is not about accountability at Efficiency Maine,” Gideon said late Friday afternoon. “Efficiency Maine is very accountable for every dollar they spend.”
In another statement related to the PUC, LePage joked that he is “rushing like crazy to find my third commissioner,” a reference to the fact that Commissioner David Littell’s term ended March 31. Littell, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, has cast votes counter to the LePage administration’s stance on key issues. Littell can continue to serve until his successor is selected.