LePage pledges to tackle energy costs to improve business climate

Posted Jan. 09, 2012, at 3:48 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 10, 2012, at 9:55 a.m.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, at the State House in Augusta.
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, at the State House in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Monday that he wants other energy sources such as natural gas and hydroelectric to enjoy the same expedited permitting process that the wind power industry has seen.

Speaking to members of the Maine Wood Products Association, the governor touched on a number of successes in his first year and also looked forward to the short legislative session that is under way.

But energy was the touchstone of his remarks, some of which echoed his radio address over the weekend during which he criticized a citizens’ initiative that seeks to require at least 20 percent of Maine’s electricity come from new renewable energy sources by 2020.

Last October, the Maine Citizens for Clean Energy coalition kicked off a signature-gathering drive aimed at beefing up the state’s renewable energy portfolio. If successful, Maine voters will decide the issue in November.

Over the weekend and again on Monday, LePage urged Mainers to look closely at the petition and reject it because it actually would increase energy costs while padding the pockets of special interest groups.

“It’s not good,” he said of the renewable energy initiative, “and I’m going to be fighting it all year.”

The audience on Monday largely agreed with the governor on energy, according to John Pietroski, president of the Maine Wood Products Association. Pietroski said energy costs are the biggest barrier for his firm, Wells Wood Turning and Finishing Inc. of Buckfield, and many others like his.

“I’m not sure, because we’re so diverse, but primarily it’s electrical costs. We’re really hurt by that,” he said.

LePage said he shakes his head when thinking about Maine’s energy costs, which are 42 percent higher than the national average, and about how much those high costs contribute to the lagging economy.

While it’s true that Maine is above the national average in electricity rates, the state’s rates are the lowest in New England.

Natural gas is an energy source that has entered the spotlight in a big way in recent months. A proposed pipeline from Richmond to Madison could expand the availability of gas to a region of the state that hasn’t seen that option.

The governor said even though the state can’t help finance a pipeline, it can be more business-friendly to providers. When asked about wind, LePage said he doesn’t have a problem with wind power but, “without a subsidy, wind doesn’t work.”

Finally, he criticized Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency whose goals are to reduce energy costs and increase efficiency, for not working closely or effectively with his administration.

He said Efficiency Maine does not report to the governor’s office, something he would like the Legislature to address in the next few weeks.

In his 20-minute speech followed by 10 minutes of questions, LePage touched on other initiatives he has in the works, including his plan to merge the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Conservation.

He said his budget proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services is the biggest hurdle the Legislature faces at the moment, but he reiterated his point that the state’s Medicaid program is unsustainable.

“What we proposed last [session] was largely ignored by both parties,” LePage said, referring to DHHS cuts that originally were part of his 2012-13 biennial budget.

The governor said Maine has become “enormously generous” in doling out welfare — a term he used interchangeably with MaineCare — but said that cannot continue.

LePage touched on his education initiatives, including moving away from a culture that encourages all children to go to college, something he called “unrealistic.” He said the technical and vocational courses have “moved to the back of the room.”

He also said teachers are underpaid and school administrators are overpaid.

LePage also touched on regulation reform, one of the hallmarks of his first six months in office and something Pietroski said has helped his industry.

“He’s worked hard at red tape and getting us through that,” he said.

More than that, though, Pietroski said he’s glad to have a governor who understands the wood products industry like LePage does.

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