EDITORIALS

Skepticism is justified with LePage’s heating cost plan, but it still offers chance for productive debate

Posted March 23, 2014, at 10 a.m.
Gov. Paul LePage gives an interview with a Canadian TV station prior at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in this March 2014 file photo.
Kevin Bennett
Gov. Paul LePage gives an interview with a Canadian TV station prior at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in this March 2014 file photo.

It is possible Gov. Paul LePage’s recent proposal to add more money to a rebate program to help people pay for cleaner, cheaper heating sources originated with a single desire to help homeowners. But the administration should pardon a healthy level of skepticism.

The governor’s bill, An Act To Expand Affordable Heating Investments with Maine’s Public Resources, would take money from the revenue the state gets from selling timber on state-owned lands and give it to Efficiency Maine Trust for measures that reduce residential heating costs.

Sounds like something Democrats have been yearning for, right? But hold on. The bill would take from conservation — a key cause for Dems — and give it to a program at Efficiency Maine that was already funded with millions of dollars thanks to a bipartisan bill passed last year that LePage vetoed. (It was then overridden.) Does that make sense?

LePage has essentially handed Democrats a political bomb one month before the end of the legislative session: Vote against cold, elderly people who need to lower their heating bills and vote against reducing oil use; or vote in favor of taking money away from the maintenance and upkeep of public lands.

There are a couple other reasons for our skepticism about the proposal, aside from the politics.

First, there is a legitimate legal question about whether the funds can be taken from the Bureau of Parks and Lands. In the past, the attorney general’s office has confirmed the state can only use the bureau’s money for reasons consistent with the agreement that formed it back when Maine became a state. The legality of this specific proposal will need to be weighed carefully.

Second, environmentalists don’t appreciate that the bureau is planning to reduce the amount of timber per acre on state-owned land by about 6.5 percent over 20 years, with the extra harvest revenue going to the Efficiency Maine program. The bureau wants to keep the forest at the 1999 level of 21.5 cords per acre, as opposed to the current 23 cords per acre, in part to avoid excess tree mortality and lessen the risk from spruce budworm.

But the fact that the administration didn’t explain how the plan would protect forest regeneration after it increased its annual allowable cut, or seek buy-in from resource protection groups on the proposal to sweep the funding, spells trouble. If the administration is serious about passing this bill, it will need their support.

We would hope LePage is genuinely focused on providing greater levels of funding to help struggling residents heat their homes. The rhetoric certainly indicates so. “I find it very, very disturbing that we have elderly that are going without heat,” LePage said March 18, two days before the start of spring. “We know of people who have to go out and buy a heating blanket, and that’s the only heat in the house.”

But the legislation he’s put forward doesn’t mention low-income homeowners. The bill would send money to a very worthy home energy savings program, but upgrading a heating system or weatherizing a home can have upfront costs that are daunting to low-income homeowners, even if they eventually get an rebate. If LePage wants to help residents who can’t access the current rebate program, he should revise the bill accordingly.

There is an opportunity to turn this legislation into something that can address a real need and gain bipartisan support. Who doesn’t want to make it easier for Maine residents to heat their homes? But the current source of proposed funding will be a nonstarter for many lawmakers, especially considering money is already available for rebates. And more should be done specifically to help low-income homeowners and fill needs not being met by current programs.

Legislators shouldn’t throw out LePage’s proposal. Whether they like the politics surrounding it or not, they should recognize the importance of having the conversation about home heating costs — and make it a productive one.

 

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