AUGUSTA – Lawmakers heard four hours of testimony Wednesday on competing proposals to fix a one-word clerical error potentially worth $38 million for an energy-efficiency program popular with Maine homeowners and businesses.
On its surface, the debate over what’s become known as the missing “and” is about correcting a simple mistake during the final, chaotic days of a legislative session. Yet Wednesday’s hearing illustrated how even a one-word error can set up a power play between the Legislature and the executive branch as Gov. Paul LePage uses the bipartisan interest in a fix as leverage for other policy changes, including creation of a Cabinet-level energy commissioner.
With lawmakers uneasy with the governor’s tactics and LePage vowing to veto a quick-fix bill, it was unclear Wednesday how things would play out for the Efficiency Maine legislation.
“I’m afraid we might lose the opportunity to do something very constructive here,” said Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft, a member of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.
The issue began in 2013 when the Legislature passed a massive energy bill that, among many other things, authorized a surcharge on electricity ratepayers – averaging about $3 a month – in order to finance an energy-efficiency program. The Legislature intended to funnel up to $59 million annually toward the 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 a single word – “and” – was inadvertently dropped during the final drafting of the bill’s language. The Maine Public Utilities Commission’s voted in March to interpret the language literally, meaning program funding would be capped at $22 million rather than the $59 million envisioned by the Legislature.
Lawmakers are considering two bills to correct the omission.
The first proposal – to simply re-insert the word “and” in the law – received strong support from conservation groups, energy-efficiency contractors and several business owners. Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sara Gideon of Freeport, L.D. 1215 had clear bipartisan support on the committee.
“This is the simplest bill you will hear all year,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a co-sponsor.
The second proposal, L.D. 1221 by Republican Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, would also re-insert the missing “and” into the law. But Fredette’s bill would also elevate the current governor’s energy office to a Cabinet-level department headed by a commissioner and deputy commissioner.
In addition, the bill 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.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office, said the additional changes would strengthen the state’s energy team while improving communication between the administration and the state’s largest energy program, Efficiency Maine. They would also enhance accountability and oversight of Efficiency Maine, a quasi-governmental agency whose budget has grown from $12 million to $70 million in a span of several years.
Woodcock also made clear, however, that LePage would likely veto Gideon’s quick-fix bill because he opposes funding the Efficiency Maine electricity program through a surcharge.
“The governor continues to be against this provision,” Woodcock said. “I’m trying to be clear with the committee about where the administration stands so we can resolve this issue.”
Committee members from both parties peppered Fredette and Woodcock with questions about the administration’s decision to link the two issues even as they expressed support for the governor’s proposal to create a Cabinet-level energy office.
Rep. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said LePage’s hints of a veto merely “perpetuates the conflict” between the Legislature and the administration. He suggested the governor should respect the “parity” between the two branches.
Rep. Beth O’Connor, a Berwick Republican, was so strongly in support of Gideon’s quick-fix bill that she briefly tried to have the committee debate and potentially vote on the bill before Fredette even presented his legislation.
The electricity program at the center of the debate is one of several Efficiency Maine programs focused on weatherization and energy conservation. Efficiency Maine is funded through a variety of sources, including: surcharges on individual electric bills, a settlement connected to the now-defunct Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset, federal grants, and the cap-and-trade carbon emissions program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
While the omission of the word “and” in the 2013 bill directly affects only the electricity program, Efficiency Maine executive director Michael Stoddard said the agency would be forced to divert money from other programs if the clerical error is not corrected before July 2016.
Yet the controversy over the $38 million missing word is already prompting some customers interested in other Efficiency Maine programs to call contractors with concerns. Adding to the confusion, Efficiency Maine recently announced an unrelated decision to reduce the size of rebates in a program that helps businesses convert to more energy-efficient lighting because the cost of the technology is falling.
Elise Brown, a partner at Evergreen Home Performance in Rockland, said the firm recently added five new employees and invested $50,000 in new equipment based on the funding expectations created by the 2013 bill. Brown and other company representatives said some customers are already calling to ask whether funding is at risk.
“Maine people want energy-efficiency programs, and Maine businesses need stability,” Brown said.