Cashman: Reading a priority at PUC

Posted Aug. 24, 2008, at 11:11 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Within minutes of his swearing-in ceremony last week, Jack Cashman was on the job as the third member of the state Public Utilities Commission.

“I have a lot of reading to do, a lot of reading,” he said in an interview. “There are a tremendous number of important issues before the PUC.”

Cashman said he could not comment on specific cases pending before the commission, but said there is a range of issues that are of great importance to Maine before the panel.

“There are billions of dollars of transmission proposals, either pending, or that will be pending,” he said. “There are also billions of dollars of renewable energy projects that are already in the pipeline, or will be soon. They are very important to Maine.”

Cashman said there also are several telecommunications issues over which the PUC has regulatory authority and others where it has indirect influence. He said his background in business and his work on Gov. John Baldacci’s staff have prepared him for the hard negotiations that are now part of the PUC’s responsibility.

“It was a bit more commonplace, say in the mid-1970s, to appoint people with a business background to the PUC than it has been recently,” he said. “But I think the times have changed, and the role of the PUC has changed.”

Cashman said the PUC once was a “pure” regulatory agency, deciding rates of integrated companies that both generated and delivered electricity to Mainers. The PUC now only regulates the delivery companies with generation of power regulated regionally and nationally.

“I can’t design a transmission line. I am not an engineer,” he said. “But I can figure out how we can best work the economics of the transmission line proposals for the best benefit of Maine ratepayers. I understand business and I understand money and how it works.”

Cashman said he would resist the temptation to “second guess” the decision to separate electricity delivery from generation, but he believes rates would be lower now if a “better deal” had been struck when those decisions were made a decade ago.

“I think we could have kept the cheap hydro power as part of the standard offer and kept prices for consumers and businesses lower,” he said. “But we now have to live with the decisions that were made back then.”

Cashman said telecommunications regulation has also changed dramatically with more Mainers using cell phones and fewer keeping traditional land lines. He said while the PUC does not regulate cell companies, it is expected to represent Maine consumers in Federal Communications Commission proceedings that do regulate those companies.

“But while cell service is important, my biggest concern is broadband access,” he said, “Maine’s economic future depends as much, maybe more, on broadband access than it does on traditional roads and highways. We have a role in that.”

Cashman praised the agreement the PUC hammered out that allowed FairPoint Communications to purchase the landline services of Verizon in Maine. He said it required significant investment in broadband Internet infrastructure and additional aid for the ConnectMe Authority charged with helping expand Internet access in underserved areas of the state.

“But we are going to have to do more, and I want to be part of that effort,” he said. “I think one of my strengths is my negotiating ability, and I want to use that at the PUC.”

Cashman served as the state commissioner for economic and community development and said there was a standing joke in that office that he would not accept any memo over two pages in length.

“I really don’t like reading long, detailed reports,” he said. “I haven’t had to do that since college. That has all changed in the last month.”

Cashman has been working hard for several weeks reading all the reports and documents he needs to analyze in the various cases before the panel. He said awaiting him on his first day were two boxes of documents, including confidential material filed as part of rates cases that he could not read before taking office.

“All that reading, that is going to be a challenge,” he said.

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