PORTLAND, Maine — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills’ office has returned to utilities regulators a controversial rule limiting funding for state energy efficiency programs, prompting a new rulemaking process.

The routine rulemaking step comes after a legislative session that generated political controversy about that specific case and the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s autonomy from the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, who has now appointed all three of its members.

Lawmakers had inadvertently given the commission two choices of where to set a cap on money that it could require utilities to give to the Efficiency Maine Trust, which subsidizes electricity and heating efficiency investments for businesses and residences.

The commission picked the lower of the two limits in a 2-1 vote, with commissioners split over whether the law they were interpreting had a clear meaning. Commissioners Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean argued for a strict interpretation of a sentence that lawmakers said was missing a critical “and” that would make clear it intended the higher cap. Commissioner David Littell, an appointee of former Gov. John Baldacci since replaced on the commission by Bruce Williamson, disagreed.

The difference was $36 million, between either a lower cap of about $23 million or a higher cap of about $59 million.

Democrats chided the commission for failing to factor legislative intent into the ruling. A bipartisan bill to reflect legislative intent to add the “and” to a wide-ranging 2013 energy law that set out where the PUC should set the cap won passage this session and and is set to become law after lawmakers overrode a veto from LePage.

“In light of this law change, the dispute about the proper interpretation of the law in its pre-amendment form has been directly addressed by the Legislature,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner said last week in a letter to the PUC’s in-house attorney.

While the law change involved only the addition of one word, Pistner said PUC officials indicated changing its proposed rule “would entail more than a few word changes” and that the new draft should be subject to public comment.

Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the commission, said the PUC will open a new rulemaking case and draft a new proposed rule to outline how commissioners will determine the maximum amount that utilities can be required to pay toward state electricity efficiency programs.

The new law sets out that the cap should equal 4 percent of the sum of charges for transmission and distribution of electricity and the price of the electricity itself, which are two separate portions of a customer’s bill.

The PUC has not set a timeline for rulemaking in the case, but Lanphear said the commission will expedite that case to have a rule in place by the time of the law’s enactment in October.

That higher cap will affect the next three-year budget planning process for the Efficiency Maine Trust to take place later this year.

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Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.