AUGUSTA — As promised, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a sweeping energy bill that had bipartisan support in the Maine Legislature late Wednesday night.
About an hour later — after the session stretched into Thursday morning — the House of Representatives overrode him, though the Senate must also do so for the bill to become law. That vote is expected next week.
The House overrode LePage by a 121-11 margin, signaling both parties’ attachment to the bill, which would be a crowning achievement for legislators in a session marred by conflict between legislative Democrats and the governor.
“This bill will reduce the cost of energy in Maine by at least $200 million a year,” said House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, on the House floor. “It will help protect jobs in our bills, keep people employed and allow for future economic development in the state of Maine.”
The Legislature passed the omnibus energy bill, L.D. 1559, earlier this month by wide margins in both the House and Senate.
LePage had to veto the bill by midnight Wednesday or let it become law without his signature. He nixed it in the last 10 minutes he had, a decision Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, called a “shortsighted” risk to state economic development.
Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, said the body received the veto message around 11:50 p.m. Wednesday.
Bill sponsors said the proposal would aid in lowering energy costs for Mainers in a number of ways, including expanding natural gas pipelines, increasing energy-efficiency program funding and helping residents convert to affordable heating systems.
But LePage’s energy director, Patrick Woodcock, told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that if the bill wasn’t amended to help the University of Maine’s offshore floating wind project, the governor wouldn’t back it.
Woodcock said early Thursday morning that he couldn’t talk to a reporter. On Tuesday, the governor’s spokeswoman said LePage’s office wouldn’t participate in Press Herald stories because the newspaper “had made it clear that it opposed this administration.”
However, in LePage’s veto message, he reiterated that the UMaine issue was the only one keeping him from signing the bill.
“There are many things we disagree on, but we should all agree that our flagship university deserves the opportunity to compete on a level playing field,” LePage wrote.
The governor wants to support UMaine’s VolturnUS pilot project over a competing venture being developed by Statoil USA, a Norwegian energy company. LePage opposed the terms of a contract along with an above-market power rate for Statoil approved last winter by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
He wants to create a new process at the PUC by which both projects could be evaluated to weigh the benefits of each to ratepayers, according to Woodcock, who has said that would ensure ratepayers get the best deal before a final contract is signed with Statoil and the PUC this summer.
Early Thursday morning, Goodall said if LePage’s veto held, it would risk Statoil’s promise to invest $120 million to develop offshore-wind technology.
“We had an opportunity to grow an industry here, an offshore wind industry, to make us a leader in the country,” Goodall said. “The governor jeopardized that.”
He also said legislators offered other ways to promote UMaine’s involvement in the technology’s development. Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono, also said he checked the bill with the university. He deemed it “a good bill.”
On the floor, Fredette went further, saying the bill protects the university.
“By not passing the energy bill, my belief is, and I can stand corrected, the University of Maine is completely out of the game,” he said.
LePage’s submitted the veto message after a frenetic night of negotiations over the bill.
In the State House hallways late Wednesday, Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, the chair of the Legislature’s Energy Committee and a champion of the bill, was seen going over papers with Woodcock and LePage’s chief counsel, Michael Cianchette.
At one point, Hobbins, Woodcock and Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the Senate chair of the Energy Committee, were seen leaving the Senate Republican office just outside the Senate chamber.
Just after 10 p.m. Wednesday, Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which has had input on the bill, said LePage’s veto decision was “up in the air,” and the parties were “passing language around” to seek a compromise.
Many of LePage’s ideas were incorporated into the bill, but legislators also rejected some of his proposed changes.
When it passed the bill earlier this month, the Senate rejected amendments submitted by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, that would have alleviated some of LePage’s concerns.
The concerns included a provision that would allow the PUC, instead of the Legislature, to set the charge added to all Maine electric bills to fund certain efficiency and conservation programs.
Still, lawmakers hailed the bill’s passage in the Legislature as a bipartisan compromise amid months of conflict two parties. On the Senate floor earlier this month, Cleveland called it a “true compromise.”
Energy interests have also cheered the bill. Tony Buxton, a lobbyist for large energy consumers such as paper companies, has called the bill “historic.”
After the override vote, he said the support of the bill shows legislators understand — and want to improve — Maine’s energy standing.
“It’s easy to be angry, especially in a toxic political environment,” Buxton said. “We’ve gotten this far relying on the better angels of our nature and we’re going to try to keep them present and active moving forward.”
State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.