AUGUSTA — House lawmakers upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a closely watched solar energy bill Friday in a blow to supporters who argued the measure would boost the industry and create jobs.
The House actually voted twice on the bill, but the outcome did not change despite a heavy State House presence of solar users and industry representatives. In the end, the 93-50 vote in the House was a few votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto from LePage, a frequent critic of Maine’s renewable energy policies.
Rep. Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat and assistant House majority leader, said afterward that the majority of House Republicans had “turned their backs on Maine workers, Maine’s homegrown solar industry and new investment for Maine.”
“An amazing collaborative effort created the opportunity to grow good-paying jobs of the future and modernize our economy,” Gideon said afterward. “I thank the 12 Republicans who refused to throw that all away and chose good policy over partisan politics.”
The solar bill had, indeed, become a partisan sticking point in recent weeks as the governor led the charge against a bill that he predicted would increase electricity rates. LePage met with Gideon and other supporters this week as the two sides attempted to find compromise but to no avail.
In his veto letter, LePage said the bill would increase the costs of doing business in Maine as well as for homes and businesses that cannot afford solar panels “by tens of millions of dollars – picking winners and losers in Maine’s energy mix.”
“I tried to negotiate in good faith with Democrats to reach a compromise that would not add to the burden of ratepayers,” LePage wrote. “I requested that the bill include all renewables, return all renewable energy credits (RECs) to ratepayers and have a cap on the price we pay in long-term contracts. We could not reach an agreement. They are not serious about reducing the price of energy for Maine families or job creators.”
The bill, L.D. 1649, aimed to add 196 megawatts of solar energy to the state’s energy portfolio over the next four years, down from the 248 megawatts contained in the original version. Maine has roughly 20 megawatts of installed solar energy today.
The bill also would tweak the controversial “net metering” system in which utility companies provide a one-to-one credit to solar customers for solar power they generate and feed back into the grid. The bill’s failure means the Maine Public Utilities Commission will likely decide the fate of Maine’s net metering policies.
Supporters waged an intense, last-minute push to save a bill that they say is critical to providing a boost to Maine’s solar industry and creating up to 650 good-paying jobs. But they also warned that defeating the bill would likely eliminate some of the estimated 300 solar energy jobs already in Maine.
But opponents said the bill would eventually result in higher energy costs for all ratepayers in order to benefit the few people who install solar energy systems.
“When you look at the people, generally speaking, who are putting in and installing solar, it is the people who have the financial means to do that,” said Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader. Fredette said that while he supports the solar industry, he opposes “socializing the costs.”
The solar bill has been heavily lobbied throughout the legislative session, and supporters in bright-yellow shirts came out in full force Friday.
Supporters failed by just two votes to achieve a two-thirds majority Friday morning during a 96-52 vote. Hoping to reverse that outcome, Democratic leaders used parliamentary maneuvers to bring the bill back for a second vote, only to lose 93-50.
Afterward, environmental and conservation groups accused several Republican lawmakers – including Michael Timmons of Cumberland, Brian Hobart of Bowdoinham, MaryAnn Kinney of Knox and John Pichiottti of Fairfield – of voting to override the governor the first time and then “taking a walk” during the subsequent vote. None voted in the second roll call. Rep. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford also supported overriding LePage’s veto on the first vote but then missed the second because she was still deciding how she wanted to vote when the roll call was taken. Dillingham said Saturday that she disagreed with the parliamentary maneuver to re-vote on the issue.
“This vote is a disappointment and a tremendous missed opportunity,” Beth Ahern, political director of Maine Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “Maine families, businesses, and communities should have every opportunity to generate their own power and increase their energy security. Today we had a chance to take a giant leap forward, but the governor’s veto leaves us mired in old-school energy policy and the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7:22 p.m. on April 30, 2016, to correct the vote of Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford.