AUGUSTA — A bill correcting a one-word clerical error potentially worth $38 million for an energy-efficiency program moved closer to final passage in the Legislature on Monday after weeks on the back burner.
But events Monday showed that politics continue to dog a bill that has near-unanimous bipartisan support but likely faces a gubernatorial veto.
The Senate voted unanimously without debate to pass L.D. 1215, which would re-insert what has become known as “the missing ‘and'” in a law that funds an Efficiency Maine program.
“We finally did in the Legislature what every one of us would do in our personal lives, which is to keep our word,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a co-sponsor of the bill. “This is the simplest bill we have all session.”
The reality, however, is that the path of the bill has been anything but simple or straightforward.
The issue began in 2013 when the Legislature passed a massive energy bill that, among other things, authorized a surcharge on electricity ratepayers to finance a program that subsidized energy-efficient light bulbs and helped more than 3,000 businesses convert to energy-saving equipment last year.
But a single word – “and” – was inadvertently dropped during the final drafting of the bill’s language. The Maine Public Utilities Commission then 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.
Correcting the error has broad bipartisan support. But the bill has become caught up in a power play between the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage, who opposes the surcharge on ratepayers. In turn, that has caused mistrust and tension between legislative leaders in the two parties.
That was clear Monday when House Democratic leaders attempted to employ an obscure parliamentary rule to prevent House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, from delaying final passage of the bill. Fredette supports correcting the error but has pushed for other changes sought by LePage, most notably creating a Cabinet-level energy commissioner. Fredette’s bill has lingered in committee, however.
“This isn’t really about procedure. This is about politics,” Fredette said.
But the parliamentary move caused confusion and frustration on the House floor.
“I’m tired of the politics of this bill,” Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, a bill co-sponsor, said on the floor. “It is damaging our ability to function.”
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the House majority leader, ultimately dropped the parliamentary tactic after Fredette said he would not delay the bill’s final passage by requesting “a hold” on the bill. But Fredette later confirmed that he did request a hold on the bill.
Democrats cheered the incremental movement toward passage, however. The bill requires one final vote in the Senate before being sent to LePage’s desk.
“We’re pleased that the clean fix bill is getting closer to the governor’s desk,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said in a statement. “Today, we again saw strong support for the measure as both chambers approved the bill with unanimous support.”
LePage has indicated that he will likely veto the bill. While the bill has received unanimous or near-unanimous support in all votes so far, that is no guarantee that supporters will keep the two-thirds majorities required to override a LePage veto. The Legislature has failed to override several bills that had unanimous or near-unanimous support after Republicans changed their votes.
And then there are the bigger political issues at play.
Fredette has accused Democrats of reneging on a promise to move his bill to create a Cabinet-level energy office and to allow the governor to appoint the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust at the same time as L.D. 1215. Instead, the bill has lingered in committee. At the same time, the Republican-controlled Senate has allowed L.D. 1215 to linger for nearly a month.
The bill’s sudden emergence on Monday came hours after Fredette vowed to attempt to derail a tentative budget deal negotiated between Senate Republican leaders and Democratic leaders because the deal rejects the income tax cuts and welfare reforms proposed by LePage. As a result, tensions are high between House and Senate Republicans.
Asked whether he believed the Senate action on L.D. 1215 was tied to the high-profile budget fight, Fredette said that was “probably accurate.”