AUGUSTA, Maine — After delaying a vote for a week, the Legislature’s Energy Committee has approved Tennessee economist and nuclear security expert Bruce Williamson for the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
The committee gave Williamson, who was not present, the greenlight in an 11-2 vote on Thursday afternoon. Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, and Rep. Dean Rykerson, D-Kittery, were the lone opponents to Williamson’s nomination.
The committee courted controversy for a week after Democrats on the panel tabled Williamson’s nomination, an unusual move in the Legislature. Gov. Paul LePage, who nominated Williamson to the three-person regulatory commission, said Democrats were playing politics and needlessly smearing a qualified candidate. He called the move to delay the vote on Williamson’s nomination “disgraceful” and “repugnant” and called for an apology from the committee’s House chairman, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland.
On Thursday, Dion said additional time was needed for committee members to vet Williamson. He also said the process gave the group time to assess the state of affairs at the PUC, which has recently been subject to increased political scrutiny.
Democrats have criticized the commission for ignoring legislative intent in a 2013 omnibus energy bill when it cut millions of dollars in funding for energy efficiency because of a typo. They also have questioned the PUC’s decision to rescind initial approval of two long-term wind power contracts.
There also has been increased concern about LePage’s influence over the ostensibly independent commission. Hill has filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the governor’s office in an effort to investigate whether LePage has exerted untoward pressure on commissioners to make decisions he approves.
Williamson said in a phone interview that he was “very happy” about the nomination and that he seeks to avoid any political interference as a commissioner.
“I fully intend to live by the statutes,” Williamson said. “There is no conversation with anyone about open dockets. It’s not going to happen with me, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the governor or the president of the United States.”
Dion said he felt comfortable voting for Williamson because the nominee had indicated he would “follow the law” as written by the Legislature.
“The committee reached a decision after thoughtful deliberation, knowing that our recommendation will have significant impact on Maine’s energy policy for years,” Dion said. “Even in times where there is no crisis of confidence around the PUC, it is a decision that requires the most careful consideration. … We continue to expect that the PUC will fulfill its regulatory role independent of the executive branch.”
If Williamson is confirmed by the Senate, the PUC will be filled entirely with LePage appointees.
Hill and Rykerson said Thursday that while they were impressed with Williamson’s economics acumen, the PUC is a quasi-judicial agency, not an economics think tank. They questioned whether Williamson had the experience necessary to judge disputes between major utilities and the state.
“What I’m looking for is someone who will make a good regulator and adjudicator, because that’s what the position called for,” Hill said.
Williamson said he had no comment on whether he thought a legal background was a better fit for a position on the PUC.
Hill also questioned Williamson’s commitment to renewable energy, the development of which is required by Maine law.
“We have no background on him,” Hill said. “He has no constituency in Maine. He comes from afar, from a state that’s not as concerned about clean energy as we are.”
The committee’s recommendation will go to the Senate in the coming days. Only one-third of the Senate must agree to confirm Williamson for his appointment to be final.
BDN staff writer Darren Fishell contributed to this report.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.