AUGUSTA — House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said Thursday that he is willing to work with Democrats on legislation to restore $38 million to Efficiency Maine for funding energy conservation in Maine homes and businesses.

Fredette’s offer came two days after two members of the state Public Utilities Commission refused to consider lawmakers’ intent or a one-word omission in an 11,633-word energy law and voted 2-1 Tuesday to cap Efficiency Maine funding at $22 million for the fiscal year beginning in July 2016, rather than the $60 million the Legislature apparently intended.

Since then, Democrats and environmental groups have accused Gov. Paul LePage’s two appointees to the commission – Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean, the governor’s former legal counsel – of exceeding their regulatory authority to effectively change the law that the Legislature enacted in 2013. The vote means that less money will be available for a program that homeowners used to buy 2.5 million discounted low-energy light bulbs last year and that 3,000 businesses – some large industrial companies – used to reduce their electricity costs with rebates or subsidies for a wide range of energy-saving improvements.

Fredette, one of the lead advocates and negotiators in the bipartisan initiative in 2013, acknowledged that a drafting error likely resulted in the missing word and changed how the PUC calculated funding for Efficiency Maine. He condemned attacks by Democrats and environmental groups that suggested the commission’s decision was politically motivated and designed to support LePage’s longstanding opposition to Efficiency Maine.

HOPE FOR A BIPARTISAN SOLUTION

Fredette said the PUC made the right decision to interpret the law literally despite being presented evidence that the statute was missing a crucial “and,” an error that dramatically reduced the funding.

“In this business, words matter,” Fredette said while displaying copies of the drafted bill and the one that passed the Legislature at a State House news conference Thursday. “This was a long, complex bill, worked on for over a year by myself and many other people. There are many parts and moving pieces and many amendments. … I believe that the criticism of the PUC in the past 48 hours has been unfair. I don’t think it’s been objective.”

Fredette said the Legislature now owns the problem, and that he is willing to help fix it.

“I suggest that we slow down and take a deep breath and take a look at possible solutions,” he said. “This bill was crafted in a true bipartisan fashion and it’s my hope that there will also be a bipartisan solution.”

Fredette’s remarks highlight the political obstacles confronting both him and passage of legislation that could restore funding to a program designed to reduce electricity costs for Mainers and businesses. The latter will largely depend on Fredette’s ability to convince Republicans – and LePage in particular – that it’s in their interest to join Democrats to repair the law.

It could be a difficult task.

LePage has criticized Efficiency Maine as an outdated model for funding efficiency programs. The governor also believes that the state should be putting a higher priority on programs that help Mainers convert to more efficient or less costly home heating systems, rather than spending more money on electricity efficiency.

Currently, the Efficiency Maine surcharge costs ratepayers 0.145 cents per kilowatt hour, or about 78 cents a month, based on the average ratepayer’s monthly consumption of 540 kilowatt hours. It would increase to 0.58 cents per kilowatt hour, or $3.13 a month on an average bill, if the funding was calculated as lawmakers intended in 2013.

CLASH OVER ENERGY BILL IN 2013

Additionally, LePage has a history of extracting big concessions when the Legislature wants to gain his cooperation. The 2013 energy bill serves as an example. At the time, LePage demanded that the University of Maine have a chance to compete against the Norwegian energy company Statoil for a $120 million offshore wind project in exchange for supporting the energy bill. While the governor ultimately vetoed the energy bill, he instructed Republican lawmakers to override it. In exchange, lawmakers agreed to pass a separate measure that effectively reopened the bidding process for the wind project. Statoil later announced that it was scuttling the Maine project, an outcome the LePage administration had sought.

Democrats made lightly veiled references to the 2013 concession Wednesday.

“All of us who were here want to honor (the bipartisan bill) and we need Republicans and Democrats to work together to honor that,” said Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, the assistant majority leader. “It shouldn’t be conditional on anything else.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups offered tepid optimism for a legislative fix.

“I don’t know yet,” said Dylan Voorhees, who handles clean-energy issues for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “A lot will depend on the governor. The governor did not like this provision of the law two years ago.”

FOCUS ON PUC RECONSIDERATION

Fredette said he has met with the governor to discuss the issue, but he would not say whether LePage would go along with a fix.

Rep. Barry Hobbins, a Saco Democrat who was a primary sponsor of the bill alongside Fredette, said the committee tried to strike a delicate balance by crafting a way to fund Efficiency Maine in the face of earlier LePage attempts to gut the program. The result, Hobbins said, was a bipartisan compromise that accomplished that and much more.

The former co-chair of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Hobbins said the way the PUC interpreted the law’s literal language “was absolutely not the intent” of the Legislature.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Hobbins, a fixture in the State House and Democratic Party politics for decades. “It’s the type of action that takes the legs out from a significant piece of legislation that was historical for the state of Maine.”

Voorhees said that for now, the focus will shift toward getting the PUC to reconsider its decision. Ultimately, he said, persuading the commission to take a second look will require advocates to show how the cut to Efficiency Maine will affect ratepayers.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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