AUGUSTA — Former longtime Democratic legislator Barry Hobbins of Saco was unanimously endorsed by a legislative committee on Tuesday 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 represent Maine ratepayers, notably low-income and residential customers, in proceedings of the Maine Public Utilities Commission on issues that include electricity and natural gas prices, telecommunications and access to broadband internet. He will also testify before and against bills in the Legislature.

A long line of legislative leaders testified in favor of Hobbins, noting his fairness, experience and ability to work across partisan divides. No one testified in opposition to his nomination, which was offered last month by Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage nominated Hobbins to replace Tim Schneider, whose term has expired. LePage made it clear earlier this year that he didn’t plan to reappoint Schneider, who angered the governor last year by working with stakeholders on a solar energy bill that LePage opposed. The position carries an annual salary of roughly $119,000, plus a benefits package worth about $18,000.

Hobbins, who turns 66 next week, has spent more than a quarter century in the Legislature, serving both as minority leader in the Senate and as co-chairman of the committee that handles energy and utility matters.

But it was his private life as a lawyer who worked over the years for wireless and telecom companies that raised questions in the media, and during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, about conflicts of interest he might have in his new role.

Hobbins said the full-time job of public advocate was different than his part-time legislative service. He’s closing his law practice, selling any stock related to utilities or energy and preparing to use his years of experience, he said, to help Maine ratepayers. The expertise he has gained in his law practice was an asset, he said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald.

Hobbins also noted that Schneider, the current public advocate, had worked for a Portland law firm and handled utility cases prior to his appointment, and that apparent conflict didn’t become an issue.

“Everyone’s trying to make a sensational case out of this, but there’s nothing there,” he told the Press Herald.

To further insulate himself from appearances of conflict, Hobbins said he doesn’t plan to assume his new job until the Legislature adjourns next month. Schneider has agreed to stay on during that time, Hobbins said, and is working with him to help create an orderly transition.

SIDELINED ON SOLAR

Hobbins said he would have no role in supporting or opposing a new round of bills aimed at expanding solar energy, a hot-button issue with LePage, who says solar incentives hurt electric customers. In nominating Hobbins, LePage made it clear his priority is to lower energy prices to make Maine more competitive for jobs and industry.

Hobbins, who voted for the solar bill last year that drew a veto from the governor, told the Press Herald that the governor never asked him to support or oppose anything specific. The governor made his views clear about energy prices, Hobbins said, but expressed the view that Hobbins would do what he thought was best for ratepayers based on his experience and seasoned judgment.

“There was no litmus test,” Hobbins said.

During the hearing, some lawmakers attempted to draw out Hobbins on his energy outlook. Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, noted that he voted for bills when he led her committee that raised rates for electric customers. Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, asked whether he could look beyond a few pennies a month, if a subsidy led to greater economic development.

Hobbins said that during his time on the committee, he promoted bills that gave more money to energy efficiency measures, but also recognized the need for expanding natural gas capacity. He tries to seek a balance and look for long-term benefits, he said, even if there’s an initial cost. He made the analogy of spending money to build and repair roads.

He stopped short, however, of expressing any position on the trio of major solar bills being presented this session, calling them “the elephant in the room.”

POLITICAL ACUMEN

Hobbins 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. His law practice focuses on areas including telecommunications law, real estate and municipal and administrative law.

But his longstanding ties to wireless and communications companies have raised questions about whether Hobbins can keep the public’s interest front and center. The Associated Press reported that Hobbins had received lodging and other gifts from Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum and owned by Charter Communications) and had represented AT&T in cell tower issues, among other things.

Wireless companies aren’t regulated by state government, but Charter has lobbied against bills to expand high-speed internet service.

LePage has been more focused on energy than telecom or wireless issues.

“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 in April 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.”

That LePage, a highly partisan politician and opponent of spending for renewable energy, would nominate a leading Democrat who has supported solar energy in the past to a top utility post seems incongruous. But Hobbins has been able to develop a good working relationship with the governor, a respect, Hobbins said in an interview Tuesday, born of their common age and his Franco-American heritage on his father’s side of the family. But it’s also clear that Hobbins is a master of old-school politics, a relationship builder in an era when compromise is seen as a sign of weakness.

His ability to make friends and influence people was evident at the hearing, as legislative leaders from across the political spectrum took turns testifying in favor of his nomination and relating stories about how he sought consensus on various matters over the years. The Hobbins-for-Public-Advocate team included Republicans – Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette – as well as Democrats – House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson.

Hobbins lost a Democratic primary bid for the Senate seat representing the Biddeford-Saco area last year. His challenger, now Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, came to the hearing on Tuesday to testify in favor of Hobbins becoming public advocate.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: TuxTurkel

This story was update on May 10 at 3:30 p.m. to correct the Hobbins family Franco-American heritage.