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LePage says policy won’t change until energy committee is replaced

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Gov. Paul LePage pauses as he answers questions at a news conference at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011.
By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said he once again will propose a number of energy bills in the second session of the Legislature, but he believes they probably will not be successful if the makeup of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee stays the same.

“We need to change the configuration of the committee, the energy committee in the Legislature,” he said in an interview. ”I can’t change the laws without the Legislature. If they choose not to fix it, there is nothing I can do.” The committee is made up of 13 members, 7 of them Republicans, 6 Democrats. The two co-chairs of the panel are both Republicans.

LePage said the committee, and the Legislature, went “in the wrong direction” last session by increasing the amount of electricity that should be provided by renewable sources. He said the amount required should be reduced so that the state can access cheaper electricity.

“In my budget of last February I asked the Legislature to address energy costs, and they chose not to,” he said. “I am going back up this time and saying if you don’t we will remain 50th [in business climate] and I don’t want that.”

LePage said he has had companies tell him they are not considering Maine as a location because of its high energy costs. He said he is exploring a number of ways to reduce the cost of electricity, including buying power from Canada.

The leadership of the panel expressed surprise at the governor’s blanket statement about the committee. Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, is a co-chairman of the panel and said while he knew the governor was not pleased with the group, it fairly considered all of his proposals.

“I understand the governor wasn’t satisfied with the direction that the committee took,“ he said, “but we made some progress. I think the governor recognizes that we did make some progress on the bill that he brought to us.”

Thibodeau said he agrees with LePage that the petition drive being circulated to force consideration of legislation that would set a 50 percent target for renewable electricity sources is wrong. Maine currently has a target of 40 percent, the highest in the nation.

Thibodeau said he agrees with the governor more than LePage realizes.

“The governor is intruding on legislative turf,” said Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, the lead Democrat on the committee. “He should stay on the second floor and if there is something he wants the Legislature to do, he can request it.”

Hinck said that while the governor can propose anything he wants, it is up to the Legislature to set policy and that is what it has done, in a bipartisan manner, when it comes to energy policy. He said LePage needs to realize the renewable energy requirements in state law are good for Maine.

“We end up with homegrown energy that has produced jobs in this state, has moved the economy forward and has cost ratepayers very, very little,” Hinck said.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, the House co-chairman of the panel, said while the governor is obviously frustrated with the legislative process, he has to realize it is different than the business world and work to convince lawmakers he is right and not just tell them he is right.

“We are more deliberative and things take longer,” he said. “I think through the time I have been on the committee, we have worked out some pretty good policies for Maine.”

Fitts said that over time the state has been moving away from fuels with volatile pricing and to fuels with stable prices. He said the recent rate reduction in the standard offer pricing for electricity is an example of the policies working.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, the Democratic senator on the panel, agreed. He said the renewable requirements in state law are helping Maine move from overreliance on fossil fuels.

“I have said a number of times that the governor has some good ideas around natural gas and trying to find ways to lower energy costs,” he said. “The problem is he wants it his way or the highway and will not come to the table and negotiate.”

Bartlett said the effort to lower costs depends on a greater diversity of energy sources. He said energy-efficiency efforts are needed to lower demand, and by requiring more Maine-based energy sources the state will reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

“We don’t have natural gas or oil or coal in the state like other states have,” he said. “We need to have more energy from wind and solar and other renewable sources that we have in our state.”

LePage said he also supports more efficiency efforts, but ones that are well targeted. He acknowledged that he is frustrated not only with the pace of the Legislature, but of government itself.

“I will tell you what I told my staff,” he said. “In the private sector, business operates like a rabbit, very quick. In government, we operate as snails. If I can get the state of Maine to operate like a turtle, I will be enormously successful.”

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