AUGUSTA, Maine — The House of Representatives voted Monday to override a Gov. Paul LePage veto of a bill would fund a solar and heat pump rebate program by adding a 0.011 cents per kilowatt-hour tax on residential and commercial electric bills.
The new fee will cost the average homeowner about five cents a month or 60 cents a year. To be eligible for the heat-pump rebate in the program participants must also be eligible for the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, but any consumer can benefit from the solar rebate program.
The House voted 105-41 to override LePage, who said he vetoed the measure because he would not support any legislation that causes Maine’s already steep energy prices to go higher.
Those supporting LePage said they too couldn’t see the sense in putting another fee on Maine ratepayers.
State Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, supported the governor’s position Monday and voted against the veto override. He said based on testimony for the bill solar, installations were already up 30 percent, as the cost of solar was dropping.
“Business is booming as it is for the heat pumps, why do we need to continue funding these programs?” Dunphy, a member of the Legislature’s Energy Committee asked his colleagues.
He noted the cost of the increase to ratepayers “was peanuts but it’s still a regressive tax.” He reiterated that Maine still has the 12th highest priced electricity in the nation and that the bill did little to nothing to reduce that cost.
Those supporting the override said the measure would do a number of things besides simply providing rebates for those wealthy enough to install solar panels on their homes, as some opponents claimed.
State Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, who added the language that provides for heat-pump rebates for those who participate in the LIHEAP program, said he too did not support the bill as it was originally drafted.
“I did feel if it was merely a solar program, that this was a tax on all Mainers and it was fairly unlikely that a low income individual could receive that assistance because the up-front cost for a solar project is very steep,” Harvell said.
Harvell said the passing winter has highlighted the need to help those with low incomes find more affordable and efficient heating sources.
“The reality is, it is probably an overall savings to the taxpayer and that is because currently we fund low-income heating and heating assistance with fuel that is about $3.50 gallon whereas a heat pump would make that fuel the equivalent of about $1.50 a gallon. It would stretch our dollars a lot further in that direction,” Harvell said.
Heat pumps run on electricity and use a compressor system much like that in a refrigerator to move heat from the air into or out of a home. The bill previously passed the House on a vote of 109-30.
The bill’s, sponsor by Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said it is part of a broader goal when it comes to energy policy in Maine.
Morrison said the bill sets up a $1 million program that helps both those installing solar panels and those eligible for the heat pump program with up to $2,000 rebates.
“We simply can’t afford to ignore solar energy, which is renewable, clean and helps keep down electricity bills that are rising because of the expansion of transmission and distribution lines,” Morrison said in a prepared statement. “This veto is even more baffling because a Republican amendment improved the bill by adding heat pump rebates for low-income Mainers.”
The bill revives a solar rebate program under Efficiency Maine and hopes to trigger more than 1,250 new solar panel and hot water projects at Maine homes and businesses.
Supporters of the measure also said it could ultimately reduce the demand to grow further expensive distribution and transmission projects, mainly power lines, that bring electricity to homes and businesses. With more people making some of their electricity where they use it the demand for transmission should diminish, they said.
But LePage who earlier this year was firm in his position that he would veto any bills that caused rate increases was equally clear in his veto message.
“This is a particularly painful time to impose an additional tax on electricity,” LePage wrote. “Energy taxes are regressive and disproportionately hurt our low-income households. This bill would impose the tax on thousands of hardworking families just to provide the few who have the means to purchase a $20,000 solar system with a rebate of an estimated $2,000.”
The Senate is expected to take up the veto later this week. For the bill to become law over LePage’s veto two-thirds of those present would have to vote to override LePage. If all 35 senators are present it would take 24 votes. The Senate earlier approved the bill on a vote of 21-14.