Maine House Republican leader proposes overhaul of energy office, efficiency funding fix

Gov. Paul LePage's administration and the top Republican in the Maine House unveiled a bill Wednesday to fix an error that caused regulators to slash funding for energy efficiency programs while bringing significant changes to state government, including the creation of an energy commissioner.

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House GOP Leader Ken Fredette's proposal ties a fix to the funding shortfall that Democrats and environmental groups are seeking to policies that Republicans and LePage support, like giving the governor more control over Efficiency Maine Trust, an independent agency that provides programs that help residents lower their energy bills.

But Democrats and some Republicans say it's inappropriate for Fredette and LePage to exploit the situation to get their plan passed. They are pushing a separate bill that would simply raise the funding cap imposed on Efficiency Maine.

"Any effort to try to extract additional concessions in order to fix a clerical error is wrong," said Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta.

When lawmakers passed a sweeping energy bill in 2013, they intended for the cap on one source of funding for Efficiency Maine Trust to be set at $60 million, but there was a typo in the law's complex funding formula. The commission that regulates the state's utilities interpreted that to mean that funding should be capped at about $22 million.

Democrats and environmentalists say that will cause efficiency programs to be slashed and residents' bills to increase, and they want to simply fix the drafting error. But Fredette says that won't get enough support from LePage and Republicans, who oppose the move because it would be paid for by putting a surcharge on ratepayers' electric bills.

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Under Fredette's proposal, the Governor's Energy Office, which currently has just two staffers, would become a Cabinet department and be named the Maine Energy Office. Instead of a director, it would be headed by a commissioner, which Fredette says would elevate the "importance of energy here in Maine, regionally and nationally."

The measure would also give LePage the power to nominate the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, who currently is chosen by its board of directors. The executive director would report to the energy commissioner, which Fredette says will allow the administration to provide better oversight over the agency.

Fredette said he believes his proposal is something that can be accomplished quickly "if reasonable minds prevail." But he acknowledged that it's likely to be an uphill fight.

Democrats, who control the House, remain steadfast that a clean bill fix to the Efficiency Maine funding problem is the only way forward.

"I am appalled by Rep. Fredette's actions," Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dawn Hill said in a statement. "He is playing politics with Maine businesses and homeowners who have made decisions and investments based on what we all understood the law to be. They are counting on us to do the right thing by implementing a straightforward and clean solution."

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