The fix to a drafting error in the law governing funding for Efficiency Maine is so simple and straightforward that lawmakers could be on their way to correcting it.
Instead, because of opposition from Republican leaders, the error is likely to be used as an excuse to change other things in — and add new provisions to — the 2013 law. This is the cynical type of lawmaking that has caused the public to lose faith in government.
Last week, the Maine Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 that funding for Efficiency Maine, the state agency that oversees residential and business energy efficiency programs, would be calculated based solely on electricity transmission and distribution costs, not total electricity costs. The result could be cutting funding for energy efficiency work by more than half.
At issue is a clause in the 2013 omnibus energy bill, sweeping legislation that included provisions to increase the state’s natural gas supply and to allow the University of Maine a shot at securing ratepayer funding to pay for an offshore wind project although the state had nearly sealed the deal with Norwegian energy giant Statoil on a competing offshore wind project.
The law, passed when lawmakers overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto in the waning hours of the 2013 legislative session, also allows the PUC, not the Legislature, to set the budget for Efficiency Maine. But lawmakers established that the budget for electricity efficiency programs should amount to no more than 4 percent of certain electricity sales. LePage had vetoed the bill because he worried it gave too much authority to the PUC and that there were better ways to lower energy costs.
The law, as a result of a drafting error, defines those sales as “total retail electricity transmission and distribution sales” rather than “total retail electricity and transmission and distribution sales.” Hence the debate over the missing “and.”
Last week, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, a champion of the 2013 energy bill, said the law clearly contained an error in not including the “and” before transmission and distribution.
“In this case, the statute [the PUC commissioners] were given contained a clerical error,” he said in a statement.
The Newport Republican suggested “everyone take a deep breath, slow down a bit, and let’s look at the possible solutions to this issue.”
But when Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, proposed a bill Thursday that would restore the missing “and” — the most obvious solution to the matter — Fredette and the four other Republican legislative leaders voted not to allow the bill to be presented to fellow lawmakers.
“We are in the conversation phase of making sure, as the path goes forward here, that we are able to get everybody on board in terms of what the fix is in this,” Fredette told Mal Leary of Maine Public Broadcasting. “And that includes both the House and Senate and the governor’s office.”
Senate President Michael Thibodeau said nearly the same thing in a statement to the BDN: “There are ongoing discussions among Democrats, Republicans, and the Governor’s Office on how best to proceed with this matter.”
Fredette said he is drafting his own bill. The likelihood that it will be as straightforward as Gideon’s is slim, especially if Fredette engages the governor’s office in “conversation.” LePage has been hostile to energy efficiency, calling conservation “just another word for a Ponzi scheme in many respects.”
What is there to discuss when just one word needs to be added to existing statute? Suggesting a broader conversation betrays the very idea of fixing this simple problem.
Using this “clerical error” to open a discussion of issues far beyond funding Efficiency Maine would be a misuse of legislative power.
Just add the “and” and be done with it.