PORTLAND, Maine — Taking the recommendation of the state’s top utility regulator, Gov. Paul LePage has nominated a senior economist at the University of Tennessee to fill an open spot on the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
LePage announced Monday that he nominated Bruce Williamson, a professor at the Institute for Nuclear Security, which is part of the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, to replace Commissioner David Littell on the three-member PUC.
Littell was appointed by former Gov. John Baldacci and could have been reappointed to the post. Instead, LePage — whose positions on alternative energy and energy policy in general differ markedly from Baldacci’s — nominated Williamson to the six-year term.
The commission regulates utilities Maine people use daily, including electricity, water and telephones.
The nomination comes at a time of increased political attention on the commission, specifically in relation to a decision about energy efficiency funding and about two long-term wind power contracts that were initially supported by Littell and former PUC chairman Tom Welch.
If Williamson’s nomination is approved by the Legislature’s energy committee and the Senate, he would join commission Chairman Mark Vannoy and Commissioner Carlisle McLean, both of whom also were nominated by LePage. McLean joined the commission earlier this year to complete the unexpired term of former chairman Tom Welch.
Williamson, who comes as an outsider to Maine politics and specific matters before the PUC, said he generally views political influence or its appearance as bad for a public utility commission’s work.
“I don’t have any axe to grind or any agenda or bias for Maine,” Williamson said in a telephone interview Monday. “I am just fascinated with economics and utilities, and I’m really excited about it.”
Primarily, he said, he is an economic analyst whose work in the private sector and academia has revolved largely around the telecommunications industry, electric utilities and Internet providers.
Williamson said he first heard about the opening from Vannoy in February. Both were judges of the American Council of Engineering Companies’ annual Engineering Excellence Awards.
“I didn’t know much about [Vannoy’s] background,” Williamson said. “You just do your work judging these national submissions and what people do is kind of in the background, and I spoke to him and he explained more about it.”
Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office, said the nomination, if approved, would broaden the skill sets of the commission. McLean is an attorney and Vannoy an engineer.
“He’s definitely in the position to ask the right questions about the assumptions that are put into economic models,” Woodcock said.
Aside from the recent controversial cases, the PUC deals with setting rates for local water utilities and for the regulated services of electric utilities and landline phone service providers around the state.
Their purpose is to carry out energy policies defined by the Legislature and also to provide research and information to lawmakers in that process.
According to Woodcock, Williamson’s arrival from out of state also would avoid potential conflicts of interest, such as the impasse caused last year by the eventual recusal of all three commissioners in a case involving Poland Spring parent company Nestle Waters, based on previous work.
Williamson also has experience in the private sector, working as a consultant in the defense industry for the Alexandria, Virginia-based WAGsolutions, and started his career in the telecommunications industry.
At the University of Tennessee, he is a lecturer in data mining and business analytics at the Center for Executive Education and a senior economist at the National Defense Business Business Institute, which studies defense department purchasing.
Williamson earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of New Mexico, has an M.A. in International Relations from the Korbel School of International Studies in Colorado and has an undergraduate degree from Cornell University.
He’s a native of Long Island, New York, growing up “when it was actually still fishing and a community,” he said, and has relatives who live in Maine. He said he considers the Northeast home. He’s not sure where in Maine he and his family would move if his nomination is approved.
A date has not been set for Williamson’s confirmation hearing, but the governor said in a prepared statement that he encourages the Legislature “to move swiftly on this nomination” based on Williamson’s qualifications.
“There is important work to do at the PUC, and I have the utmost confidence he will serve the people of Maine well,” LePage said.
Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and House chairman of the Legislature’s Energy Committee, said the committee is pleased the governor has put forward a nominee. The committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on the nomination.
Littell, whom Williamson would replace, said in an email that he is “pleased to see the governor has been able to find a new commissioner-nominee” but expressed concern about finishing a few cases before the commission, including the efficiency funding case and the long-term wind power contracts case.
“I hope the commission can address those remaining matters this week or next and have made that request of the chairman well before this nomination,” Littell said.