For most people, the Maine Public Utilities Commission is an obscure entity of unknown importance. But the commission’s work is of immense and far reaching consequence.

Operating like judges, the commission regulates electric, natural gas, telecommunications and water utilities, setting rates and service standards, as well as monitoring safety and reliability. Put simply, the PUC determines how our utilities operate, the revenues they collect and, importantly, the bills we pay.

The PUC matters. A lot.

And an effective, high-functioning PUC requires both the appearance and reality of institutional legitimacy. That means commissioners issuing decisions based upon numbers and facts, not ideology and politics.

But two recent PUC decisions raise questions about the neutrality, fairness and predictably of the commission’s proceedings. Last month, the PUC voted to re-open two wind energy contracts that were expected to save ratepayers between $19 million and $69 million over 20 years with prices below the standard electricity offer. The rationale for reopening the contracts was a lightly baked notion that anticipated savings might not materialize due to declining energy costs driven by falling oil prices.

But commodity markets are notoriously unpredictable, especially over a 20-year term. Today’s cheap oil is a dubious indicator of future market behavior, making the contracts a perfectly reasonable, predictable cost-saving hedge against potentially volatile electricity prices.

So why reopen the contracts?

Many see the long arm of Gov. Paul LePage at work, proactively but surreptitiously scuttling new wind projects just as he did with Statoil.

The two commissioners voting to reopen the contracts are LePage appointees and likely share his ideological antipathy toward wind power. The governor even asked the PUC in a previously confidential letter to “expand your current request for proposals to include any clean energy resource, including existing hydropower and nuclear.” The PUC dutifully complied in a separate February request for proposal (RFP).

So with the contract economics fundamentally sound and the additional RFP issued, it’s hard to posit a rationale for reopening the contracts beyond ideology. Whether that directly implicates the governor is impossible to know, but there needn’t be ex parte contact for commissioners to carry out the governor’s well-established policy wishes.

What’s worse than the decision itself, however, is the chilling message it sends to any entity with existing or potential business before the PUC. It creates substantive questions about the predictability, fairness and certainty of future commission orders and, by extension, the regulatory process generally.

That kind of unpredictability and risk is the unmitigated enemy of future business growth and investment in Maine.

In a separate decision last week, the commission issued an order that could cut Efficiency Maine Trust funding by $38 million. The commission determined that statutory language in the bipartisan omnibus energy bill was “clear and unambiguous” despite legislative intent self-evidently and provably to the contrary.

Legislators of both parties even sent commissioners a letter stipulating their intention to increase and cap energy efficiency spending at $60 million a year, not cut it by almost $40 million. Yet commissioners adopted a strict reading of the language, breezing past the legislative letter and forgoing discussion on the matter.

Some believe the commission’s ruling is legally defensible, but it was politically and practically unnecessary, punting to a divided Legislature what the PUC could’ve easily resolved itself.

LePage’s appointees effectively chose to poke the Efficiency Maine Trust and the Legislature in eye. And, intentionally or not, their decision channels LePage’s long-held antagonism toward Efficiency Maine, its electricity programs and ratepayer-based funding mechanisms. But once again, it’s not the decision itself which is so damaging, even though it undermines efficiency programs vital to reducing electricity costs for homeowners and increasing the global competitiveness of Maine businesses.

Instead, the more enduring and worrisome injury is the diminishment of the PUC’s credibility with lawmakers, especially those on the Energy Utilities and Technology Committee, who rely upon commissioners for objective counsel.

The assumption of impartiality is fundamental to the shaping of sound policy. When that trust erodes, the legislative process itself degrades, with businesses bearing the brunt of the resulting risk and uncertainty.

That is antithetical to the governor’s oft-repeated belief that “investment capital goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s appreciated.”

Whether these recent PUC decisions are predictive of future behavior is unknown. For his part, the governor is unlikely to let an opportunity to exert policy control or apply political leverage go unexercised.

But the unabashed encroachment of any political ideology at the PUC is dangerous, creating unpredictable regulatory outcomes more likely to diminish large-scale private investment and damage Maine’s global brand than deliver rate-payer relief.

Michael Cuzzi manages the Boston and Portland offices of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter @CuzziMJ