AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill designed to fix a clerical error that cut $38 million from an energy-efficiency program popular with Maine homeowners and businesses.
The proposal, L.D. 1215, sponsored by Rep. Sarah Gideon, D-Freeport, is what Democrats have described as a “clean fix” that adds a missing “and” to the omnibus energy law, a sweeping initiative that Democrats and Republicans negotiated and passed in 2013. The Legislature’s desire to fix the error had become leverage for LePage, who had threatened to veto the bill unless it also elevated his energy office to a cabinet-level agency and gave it more authority over Efficiency Maine Trust. The latter is the same program that is facing greatly reduced funding because of the clerical error.
The House voted 138-1 to approve the bill. House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, had offered an amendment containing the governor’s plan to expand his cabinet and giving him the power to appoint the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, but he withdrew the amendment Wednesday morning. A proposal identical to the amendment will be considered by the Energy and Utilities Committee on Thursday.
Currently, the Efficiency Maine Trust board selects the executive director.
While the House vote would appear to increase the chance that the proposal is on the fast-track for passage, LePage has indicated that he’ll veto the bill. Republicans supported the measure on Wednesday, but Fredette and Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, lamented that the effort to fix the law had become embroiled in politics.
Dunphy said claimed that a special interest group — the Natural Resources Council of Maine – had used the controversy to “fundraise and recruit.” Dunphy was referencing the backlash from environmental groups when the Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 not to consider the legislative intent of the 2013 energy law. A vote supporting legislative intent would have recognized that lawmakers mistakenly omitted the “and” from the 11,633-word law.
The energy law 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.
However, the 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.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office, said the governor’s request for additional changes would strengthen the state’s energy team while improving communication between the administration and Efficiency Maine. He also argued that it would 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.
Democrats countered that the governor was trying to extract concessions from a deal negotiated nearly two years ago and to expand the power of his office.
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.
L.D. 1215 faces additional votes in the House and Senate before going to the governor.