by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA — The state Senate on Wednesday, by sustaining the governor’s veto, pulled the blinds on a bill that would have allowed homeowners to get rebates for installing solar panels.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill that also created a rebate program for low-income families who install electric heat-pump systems because it funded the program with a surcharge on all consumers of electricity.
The Senate voted 22-13 to overturn the veto — two votes short of 24, the number needed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for a veto override. The Maine House on Monday voted 105-41 to override the veto.
Under the bill, electric ratepayers would have paid a 0.011 cent surcharge on their monthly kilowatt usage, an average of about 5 cents per month. LePage has been steadfast in his promise to veto any bill that increases costs to Maine ratepayers.
His top energy adviser, Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office, said 5 cents per month might not seem like a lot but when coupled with a variety of other programs that tack surcharges on to Maine ratepayer bills, pennies start to add up.
Senate Republicans opposing the bill echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
“How many times have we heard, ‘If only we had a few more pennies of your money, look at all the good we could do?'” state Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, asked his colleagues. “How many times have we said yes to ‘it’s only a little more.’ We’ve said yes and yes and yes again until our taxes are too high, until they are too big a burden for many people to bear.”
Democrats argued that the bill was as much an economic development tool as it was a means of helping to combat the ever-increasing cost of heating Maine homes.
“This is a way that some of these people could actually benefit by getting a system that would be cheaper for them than Big Oil,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “It would be easier for them than having to deal with firewood.”
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy Committee, said the bill, which would have created a $1 million fund to pay rebates of up to $2,000 for two years to those who installed solar panels, would return more than $10 million in private investment to Maine.
Cleveland noted that the provisions in the bill that would allow rebates for those receiving heating help from the state’s Low-Income Heating Assistance Program to install high-efficiency heat-pump systems would also generate about $750,000 in savings for those families.
“This will go back into our economy because the money they save, that they don’t spend on foreign oil, that’s shipped out of state, will be spent here in the local economy and on local businesses, as well,” Cleveland said.
He said the installation of $10 million in home-based solar energy would not only help Maine further diversify its energy mix but would save about $750,000 in electricity usage.
He said the bill would help a fledgling solar industry take off. He said the governor’s opposition over the cost was unfounded, adding that the 5 cents per month that would be added to the average ratepayer’s bill was about the cost of using a single light bulb for two hours per month.
“So to suggest that somehow this program is not worthy of our support because it adds 5 cents cannot be taken seriously as a real argument to be opposed to this particular bill,” Cleveland said. He said constrained natural gas supplies and the ratepayer-borne cost of expanding transmission lines in Maine were what was really adding to ratepayers’ costs.
But Republicans standing with LePage weren’t buying it.
State Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, said Cleveland was right about diversification and other issues, but in the end he and other opponents couldn’t add another cent to Maine ratepayer bills.
“We can’t overlook the fact that we are taking $1 million out of the pockets of the aged, the poor, the people who pennies really, really make a difference to in this state,” Youngblood said.
The bill is now dead.