May 24, 2018
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Hands off Efficiency Maine, governor

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
Matthew Damon with Penobscot Home Performance (center) talks with Bangor homeowners Keith and Beth Bisson while performing a home energy audit using an infrared camera in June 2010.

The LePage administration is bent on taking the “quasi” out of the several quasi-state agencies, each of which serves an essential function in keeping Maine commerce humming. The scandalous abuse unearthed at the Maine Turnpike Authority seems to have been interpreted by the administration as the tip of an iceberg of corruption and wasteful spending in all such agencies.

This is the wrong conclusion. Legislators should insist on halting the governor’s petulant power grab until a more thoughtful analysis of each agency’s role can be undertaken. Even in the midst of budget challenges, a slower approach is needed before undoing decades of effective work.

There may indeed be expense lines for travel and conferences in some of these agency budgets that would raise eyebrows. But in the administration’s zeal to corral the agencies under the oversight of the governor’s office, it has misunderstood much. Topping the list is why those agencies were set up as semi-independent agencies in the first place.

Gov. LePage may think he can run agencies such as Maine Housing more efficiently and effectively, but like most of the agencies, its mission relies on being a step or two removed from politics. Even the Maine Turnpike Authority, which for years had a budget fattened by a steady revenue stream from tolls, must be safe from the influence of elected officials. Think of how the turnpike route and placement of exits would look if powerful legislators could have controlled its development.

The latest grab comes in the governor’s energy bill, released late in the session with little input by stakeholders. One component of the plan calls for the governor’s office to oversee the Efficiency Maine Trust. Efficiency Maine is the perfect example of a quasi-governmental agency that matches these post-recession, smaller government times. It exists, for all intents and purposes, to save Maine businesses and residents money on their electric bills. And it succeeds mightily in that mission.

For mere pocket change on electric bills, Efficiency Maine has funded improvements to businesses and homes that are expected to save $450 million in energy bills over the coming decade. It’s a simple but profound truth that the easiest way to lower energy costs is to improve efficiency. That means helping grocery stores retrofit their coolers, manufacturing plants replace electric motors, retail stores such as Marden’s reconfiguring lighting and homes adding insulation and more efficient windows and doors.

Efficiency Maine is presently run by a nine-member board, with all members being appointed by the governor, so Mr. LePage cannot credibly claim lack oversight. The trust is required to give regular, detailed reports to the Legislature about its work. Its budgets and how it aims to spend money must be approved the Public Utilities Commission, so in fact it functions much like Central Maine Power or Bangor Hydro except, unlike the utilities, Efficiency Maine is not-for-profit.

Gov. LePage may be confident that he can run Efficiency Maine better than it is now being run, but that assumption seems routed in ideological, not factual, beliefs. His bill, introduced by Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, betrays his bias for electric heat. That may be a good move, but as long as such strategies have direct ties to elected officials, they will be suspect. If the next governor has a very different ideology on energy matters, Republicans likely would distrust his or her manipulation of the trust.

Clamping the mantle of politics on an agency such as Efficiency Maine will push it backward, not allow it to tackle the rapidly changing energy challenges that we as a state and nation face. Hands off, governor.

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