LePage picks old-school Democrat as next state utilities watchdog

Posted April 14, 2017, at 9:57 a.m.
Last modified April 14, 2017, at 4:14 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Friday nominated Barry Hobbins, a longtime Democratic legislator, as the state’s next utility ratepayer advocate, succeeding an appointee who earned the governor’s ire by leading an effort to change state solar power policies.

The Republican governor announced Hobbins’ nomination Friday morning.

“We must have a public advocate who understands the challenges companies are facing because of high energy prices and who is strongly dedicated to helping Maine compete for good-paying jobs in the domestic and global markets,” LePage said in a prepared statement.

Hobbins would replace Tim Schneider, whom LePage appointed to the position in 2013 out of private practice at Pierce Atwood. LePage called the appointment one of the “worst decisions in my life” during a legislative fight to reform the state’s solar energy policies. Schneider’s four-year term expired in March.

[ Can Maine thread the political needle on solar policy?]

Schneider’s office orchestrated a compromise bill with the solar industry, utilities, environmental groups and other interested parties, at the Legislature’s request. His advocacy for the bill sparked ire from LePage, who called for all three public utilities commissioners to resign over a separate decision that will gradually reduce payments to new small solar producers.

Oddly enough, Hobbins voted for that same bill during his most recent term in the House. But Hobbins said “there was no litmus test” on specific issues during his conversations with the governor about the nomination.

In a telephone interview Friday, Hobbins said he was “surprised but honored” by the nomination, as his resume reflects decades of loyalty to Democratic politics.

“You would think that would foreclose any opportunity for someone like me to be appointed by a Republican,” Hobbins said. “[LePage] looked beyond all that, and quite frankly, I’m glad that he did.”

[ Here’s the career path a lifelong Democrat took to becoming a LePage nominee]

Hobbins, a Saco attorney, was a legislator for 26 years ousted after losing a 2016 Maine Senate primary to Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco. Hobbins was one of the few Democrats to enjoy a productive relationship with LePage, particularly as Senate minority leader from 2010 to 2012.

It was during that time Hobbins said he and the governor were able to find common ground on issues such as allowing first responders and family members to administer the drug naloxone to people overdosing on heroin.

“I had a son who had an opiate addiction and I said that I would really like for immediate family members to have access to [naloxone],” Hobbins said Friday. “We looked at each other — and everyone says he doesn’t listen — but he sat there and listened to me for 30 minutes and he changed his mind.”

That resulted in LePage and Hobbins collaborating on a bill in 2014 that increased the availability of naloxone. At a town hall meeting last year, LePage singled out Hobbins to praise him as a lawmaker who had his constituents’ interests at heart.

Hobbins said the governor first approached him if he would be interested in the position months ago and that he was asked to apply. He said “different people” recommended him for the position and eventually a member of the governor’s staff called him to a meeting.

Around that time, Hobbins was working to rebuild a full-time law practice after decades of part-time legal work and part-time legislative duties.

It’s unclear how Hobbins will differ from Schneider in the public advocate role, which is subject to approval from the Legislature’s energy committee and the Maine Senate. As House chairman of the Legislature’s energy committee in 2013, he helped design the omnibus energy bill that aimed to decrease Maine’s reliance on oil by expanding natural gas capacity.

That natural gas effort stalled, after years of study, because other New England states did not sign on to similar proposals for electricity ratepayers to help pay for natural gas pipeline capacity.

LePage had vetoed the omnibus bill, even though it contained a number of proposals that were originally his. But LePage asked lawmakers to pass the bill and override his veto after it incorporated provisions to allow an offshore wind proposal from the University of Maine to qualify for ratepayer subsidies through a state pilot program.

Reopening applications for the pilot program caused Norwegian energy company Statoil to nix its Maine plans, as it had been the only qualified offshore wind pilot project.

The omnibus bill also altered how the state’s efficiency programs are funded, through the Efficiency Maine Trust.

Hobbins said that he’s now working to unwind some of the cases he’s been working on through his private law practice, and exploring whether he will need to divest any retirement or other investments that could present a conflict of interest. Hobbins said he has not represented clients in cases at the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Hobbins’ nomination also comes before LePage’s decision to reappoint or replace commissioner Carlisle McLean, the governor’s former legal counsel, to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Her term expired in March. That appointment for a six-year term requires approval by the Legislature’s energy committee, followed by Senate confirmation.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

 

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