September 16, 2019
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Governor’s energy bill turning into a political football as session winds down

AUGUSTA, Maine — Ever since one of the Gov. Paul LePage’s energy bills was amended and then voted out by a majority of lawmakers on the Energy Committee, his energy director and others have been working hard to return the bill to its original intent.

So far, Kenneth Fletcher, the director of the Office of Energy Independence, has been unsuccessful, but Senate leaders have continued to defer action on the bill to let him and others continue to lobby.

Eventually, LD 1863 will have to be voted on since the legislative session is scheduled to wrap up by the end of next week. That leaves little time to bring any Senate Republicans back into the governor’s corner.

LD 1863 is one of four energy bills submitted by the governor this session, but it’s the one for which he has pushed the hardest.

The bill as drafted was simple. It would lift the 100-megawatt cap for qualifying renewable power generation — particularly hydropower. This would allow Maine to buy low-cost energy that meets the renewable energy standard, thereby reducing energy costs for businesses and homeowners.

In the majority report approved the Energy Committee, the bill directs the Maine Public Utilities Commission to submit a request for proposals and then make determinations about whether the 100-megawatt cap should be lifted.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the majority report should appeal to Republicans because it creates market competition.

Fletcher, however, said this week that the majority report creates a scenario by which energy providers would have to go through an exhaustive and drawn-out process that might fail to result in a deal. He said that would encourage them to look elsewhere.

Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, and all six Democrats on the Energy Committee voted for the majority report.

The remaining five Republicans offered a minority report that is closer to the bill’s original language. It would authorize the PUC to enter into contracts for electricity above 100-megawatts if it is priced at least 10 percent less than the applicable market rate.

Fletcher and the governor want the minority report to pass. In fact, shortly after LePage returned from a vacation in Jamaica last week, he blasted lawmakers for rewriting his bill and blamed special interest groups for the changes.

“I do not support Augusta being in the business of increasing costs on Maine ratepayers to pad the pockets of special interest groups,” he said in a statement last Friday. “I believe it is morally and ethically wrong to take more money from those who can least afford it to line the pockets of those that are politically connected here in Augusta.”

The governor also directed comments at the eight lawmakers who voted against his initial bill.

“I encourage constituents to call legislators who voted against this bill and ask them if they are concerned about the rising cost of energy hurting working families and small businesses. If they are, ask them to change their vote,” he said.

The Republicans have a 19-16 edge in the Senate, so it would take only two GOP senators to approve the majority report and go against the governor.

Rector and Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, appear to be firmly against against the original bill. Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who led the minority report in the Energy Committee, is considering a floor amendment, according to staff in the Senate Republicans office.

As it stands, LD 1863 is on the Senate calendar and could come up at any time.

It’s not clear what will happen to the bill when it goes to the House. Fitts supports the majority report but said he doesn’t know how many of his fellow Republicans are with him.

LePage actually called out Fitts by name on Saturday during a radio interview in which he said Fitts “making his living off wind,” a claim Fitts denied.

The Pittsfield representative works for Kleinschmidt Associates, an engineering and consulting firm that focuses on energy and water issues. While the firm has clients involved in wind energy, that is a small part of what Kleinschmidt does, Fitts said.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

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