AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate on Wednesday pulled the blinds on a bill that would have allowed homeowners to receive a rebate for installing solar panels by sustaining Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the measure.
LePage vetoed the bill, which also created a rebate program for low-income families that install, electric heat pump systems, because it funded the program with a surcharge on all consumers of electricity.
The Senate voted 22-13 to overturn the veto — two votes short of the 24 needed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for a veto override. The Maine House on Monday voted 105-41 to override the veto.
Under the bill, electric ratepayers would have paid a 0.011 cent surcharge on monthly kilowatt usage for an average of about 5 cents per month. LePage has been steadfast in his promise to veto any bill that increases costs to Maine ratepayers.
His top energy adviser, Patrick Woodcock, the director of the governor’s energy office, said 5 cents per month may not seem like a lot, but when coupled with a variety of other programs that tack surcharges on to Maine ratepayers’ bills, the pennies start to add up.
Senate Republicans opposing the bill echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
“How many times have we heard, ‘If only we had a few more pennies of your money, look at all the good we could do?’” Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, asked his colleagues. “How many times have we said yes to ‘it’s only a little more.’ We’ve said, yes and yes and yes again until our taxes are too high, until they are too big a burden for many people to bear.”
Democrats argued the bill was as much an economic development tool as it was a means to help combat the ever-increasing cost of heating Maine homes.
“This is a way that some of these people could actually benefit by getting a system that would be cheaper for them than big oil, it would be easier for them than having to deal with firewood,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Energy Committee, said the bill, which would have created a $1 million fund for two years to pay up to $2,000 rebates for those who install solar panels, would return more than $10 million in private investment to Maine.
Cleveland also noted the provisions in the bill that would allow rebates for those receiving heating help from the Low Income Heating Assistance Program to install high-efficiency heat-pump systems would also generate about $750,000 in savings for those families.
“This will go back into our economy because the money they save, that they don’t spend on foreign oil, that’s shipped out of state, will be spent here in the local economy and on local businesses as well,” Cleveland said.
He also said the installation of $10 million of new home-based solar would not only help Maine further diversify its energy mix but would also save about $750,000 in electricity use.
He said the bill helped a fledgling solar industry take off. He said the governor’s opposition over the cost was unfounded.
Cleveland said the 5 cents per month that would be added onto the average ratepayer’s bill was about the cost of using a single light bulb for two hours a month.
“So to suggest that somehow this program is not worthy of our support because it adds 5 cents can not be taken seriously as a real argument to be opposed to this particular bill,” Cleveland said.
He said what was really adding to ratepayers’ costs were constrained natural gas supplies and the ratepayer-born cost of expanding transmission lines in Maine.
But Republicans standing with LePage weren’t buying it.
Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, said Cleveland was right about diversification and other issues, but in the end, he and other opponents couldn’t add another cent to Maine ratepayer bills.
“We can’t overlook the fact that we are taking $1 million out of the pockets of the aged, the poor, the people who pennies really, really make a difference to in this state,” Youngblood said.
The bill is dead.