AUGUSTA –– The political battle over the missing “and” continued Wednesday as lawmakers offered competing proposals to correct a one-word clerical error that could cost an energy-efficiency program for homeowners and businesses $38 million.
Although Democrats want a “clean fix” to the law, Republican House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette proposed legislation backed by Gov. Paul LePage that would reinsert the missing word, but also create a Cabinet-level commissioner of energy.
On Wednesday, it remained unclear how or whether the Legislature will fix what both sides acknowledge was a typographical error.
“I reject tying the fix of the word ‘and’ to anything else,” Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said after Fredette unveiled his proposal. “I am very willing to discuss any legislation having to do with an energy office or how we talk about energy in the state of Maine, but it shouldn’t be part of the conversation about fixing one word.”
The word was accidentally dropped from a more than 11,000-word energy bill passed by the Legislature with broad bipartisan support in 2013.
The bill authorized the Public Utilities Commission to raise money for energy-efficiency programs by adding a surcharge to electricity rates that would raise monthly bills by 0.58 cents per kilowatt hour, or an average of $3.13. The Legislature expected the program to raise roughly $59 million for an Efficiency Maine program that subsidized 2.5 million energy-efficient light bulbs purchased by Mainers last year and helped more than 3,000 businesses convert to energy-saving equipment.
But in the rush to complete the complex bill in the final days of the legislative session, no one noticed that the word “and” had been dropped from a key phrase. In a 2-1 vote last month, the PUC took a strict, literal interpretation of the bill’s language that effectively caps annual funding at $22 million rather than nearly $60 million.
TYING FIX TO CONCESSIONS OPPOSED
Fredette’s proposal would reinsert the word “and” into the law – effectively restoring the higher funding cap – but would also elevate the current Governor’s Energy Office to a Cabinet-level department headed by a commissioner and deputy commissioner. The bill also would allow the governor to appoint the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, subject to approval from the Maine Senate. Currently, the Efficiency Maine Trust Board selects the executive director.
Fredette said the reality is that the “quick fix” sought by Gideon isn’t politically viable.
“I think it’s important for me to put forward a piece of legislation that I actually think can get enacted, and that means it has to get through a Democratic House, a Republican Senate and then to have a bill that the governor can sign off on,” said Fredette, R-Newport. “This is a bill that I feel we can get done and get through that process.”
Several Republicans joined Gideon and other Democrats in urging the Legislature to simply reinsert the missing word without muddying the political waters with other issues.
“I just personally think that any effort to extract additional concessions in order to fix a clerical error is wrong,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, an Embden Republican who served on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that crafted the 2013 bill, is a co-sponsor of Fredette’s bill but said he strongly prefers Gideon’s quick-fix solution.
“We knew what the intent was,” Dunphy said. “We spent hours and hours and hours working on this bill and, to me, to do anything other than correct this error is disingenuous.”
LePage has made lowering Maine energy costs a top priority but has also frustrated some in Maine’s energy sector by actively opposing development of renewable energy in the state.
GROWING, ELEVATING ENERGY OFFICE
Fredette’s proposal to create a Cabinet-level Maine Energy Office would likely pick up bipartisan support in the Legislature. Yet linking the proposal to the Efficiency Maine bill carries political risks.
The proposal would double the size of the current Governor’s Energy Office from two staffers to four and would divert $300,000 annually from Efficiency Maine to pay for the office and staff salaries. Patrick Woodcock, LePage’s current energy director and a likely candidate for the energy commissioner position, said he expected federal grants to pay for any other expenses.
It was unclear Wednesday how a Cabinet-level energy office would operate differently than the current structure. Maine had an Office of Energy Resources for roughly 15 years until 1990 when a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. John McKernan eliminated it.
Woodcock said he is technically “a staffer to the governor” and that LePage supports elevating the office.
“Most states have an energy office,” Woodcock said. “I really think that given the importance to our state that we have to have an energy office separate from the governor’s office and that we fund that position so we execute better policy for our state.”
The potential creation of a Cabinet-level energy office could explain why Woodcock removed himself from consideration for a vacancy on the Public Utilities Commission.
As a department head, Woodcock would presumably have more influence over energy policy. PUC members were paid $118,000 to $130,000 last year while LePage administration department heads earned $106,000 to $118,000. Woodcock was paid roughly $91,000 as the governor’s energy director, according to public records.