AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has nominated former longtime Democratic legislator Barry Hobbins of Saco to represent the interests of Maine’s utility customers as the head of the Office of Public Advocate.
If approved by the state Senate, Hobbins would take over the role of representing Maine ratepayers in proceedings of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, on issues of electricity and natural gas prices, telecommunications, access to broadband internet and other utility matters. The public advocate also testifies in front of the Legislature on utility issues and represents consumers on issues pending with the ISO New England electric grid, as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Hobbins would replace Tim Schneider, an attorney appointed by LePage in 2013 who has fallen out of favor with the governor largely for his work on solar energy policy. Hobbins has enjoyed a cordial and, at times, chummy relationship with Maine’s Republican governor. But the longtime legislator would take over the position at a time when LePage – who lists high energy costs as a major impediment to economic development in Maine – is at odds with Schneider and all three of his appointees to the Maine PUC.
“Thanks to the misguided energy policies of the past that have been thrust upon us by wealthy special interests, Mainers are now burdened with the 11th highest energy prices in the nation,” LePage said in a statement Friday announcing Hobbins’ nomination. “The high cost of doing business in Maine, especially in our high-tech, agricultural, manufacturing and forest products industries, is a huge jobs killer. We must have a public advocate who understands the challenges companies are facing because of high energy prices and who is strongly dedicated to helping Maine compete for good-paying jobs in the domestic and global markets.”
Hobbins, an attorney who has been involved in state politics for nearly a half-century, was the youngest lawmaker in the State House when he was first elected in 1972 at age 21. He subsequently served 12 more terms in the Maine House and Senate and served for years on the Legislature’s Energy and Utilities Committee, including as chairman. In his law practice, Hobbins focuses on telecommunications law, real estate, municipal and administrative law, land use planning, business and corporate law, criminal and family law.
He lost a Democratic primary bid for the Senate seat representing the Saco/Biddeford area last year.
Hobbins could not be reached for comment Friday. But he and LePage have worked together on issues, and the governor on several occasions publicly praised Hobbins for his willingness to work with him.
In February 2012, for instance, LePage said Hobbins had “shown a willingness to work with the majority, unlike others in the (Democratic) caucus who resorted to obstruction” on closing a $221 budget shortfall.
For his part, Hobbins highlighted his relationship with LePage as an asset during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in the Senate District 31 race. Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, won the primary and the general election.
“I know I have the ability to at least break bread with him,” Hobbins said at the time. “I treat the office of governor with respect, but I don’t roll over for Gov. LePage.”
Schneider also had a seemingly cordial relationship with LePage until last year, when the public advocate helped to broker a compromise on a solar energy bill. LePage fiercely opposed the compromise and successfully vetoed the bill, which sought to boost the megawatts of solar energy in Maine and tweaked the so-called “net metering” system that allows homeowners with solar energy systems to receive bill credits for excess energy they feed back into the grid.
LePage often blames solar energy, PUC decisions and lawmakers for driving up electricity prices. And after Schneider’s work on the compromise, he later told a conservative talk radio host that picking Schneider was “one of the worst, worst decisions ever in my life.”
Schneider said he was proud of his office’s work with LePage to put the issue of electricity rates front-and-center with the Legislature. He also highlighted the office’s focus on programs that help low-income ratepayers as well as the work on solar policy, even if the compromise ultimately failed.
“I’m really grateful to the governor to have had the opportunity to do this work,” Schneider said. “It has been a great job and I really enjoyed it professionally … and would not have had the opportunity if not for the governor. I had a very good working relationship with the governor until the work we did on solar last (legislative) session.”
Schneider had said this year that he expected LePage to nominate another public advocate when his term expired in March.
“The office is independent, which means we can take positions opposite of the governor,” he said. But Schneider added that because the position is appointed, the governor always has the prerogative to replace the public advocate.
Hobbins’ nomination will be heard by the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which will make a recommendation to the full Senate.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: