The failure last week of a legislative committee to agree on the shape of utility reform leaves it to the full Legislature to find a compromise on a high-profile energy bill next month.
In early February, Gov. Janet Mills introduced a bill designed to crack down on electric utility performance issues by using the threat of steep financial penalties or even a forced sale of assets to another company or a consumer-owned entity.
The proposal emerged as an alternative to an ongoing campaign to replace Maine’s two investor-owned utilities – Central Maine Power and Versant Power – with a statewide, consumer-owned power company.
It came after the consumer campaign acknowledged that it wasn’t able to gather enough signatures for a ballot initiative in 2022 and said it would continue to collect names for a 2023 attempt.
The bill offered by Mills would require quarterly report cards that grade utilities’ ability to meet minimum standards for customer service, complaints, reliability and power restoration. It would impose a fine of $1 million or 10 percent of annual revenue for multiple failing report cards. Continued failure could trigger a forced sale to another power company or a consumer-owned utility.
The bill also would add more protection for whistleblowers who report illegal or improper behavior by a utility, authorize the Maine Public Utilities Commission to audit utilities’ financial information and require utilities to submit regular plans to address the impact of climate change on their infrastructure.
But the bill, L.D. 1959, was criticized by both utilities and their foes at a public hearing before the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee in late February. Nearly a dozen people spoke in favor of the bill, and more than 40 spoke against it.
Power companies said new standards and penalties aren’t necessary because their service and accountability have improved recently. Opponents said the bill doesn’t go far enough to rein in power companies owned by foreign conglomerates.
NO CONSENSUS FOUND
Those divisions carried over last week at a marathon work session in the legislative committee, where lawmakers sought a path to a consensus bill that would provide direction to the full Legislature. They didn’t find one.
After a late-afternoon meeting that saw lawmakers proposing scores of complex amendments, the 13-member committee ended its work with a three-way, divided report: An amended version of Mills’ bill attracted five votes; a version favored by supporters of a consumer-owned utility got four votes; and a competing version introduced by Republicans garnered two votes. Not all members were present Friday.
The amendment summaries were still being drafted Monday and were not available.
The next step is for the committee and its legislative analysts to clarify the specific language in those amendments and prepare them for consideration by the full Legislature. That’s expected to happen over the next two weeks.
Following the work session, Our Power, the interest group promoting the consumer-owned utility campaign, urged lawmakers to embrace the amendment it favors. That’s the one presented by the committee’s co-chair, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a longtime CMP critic and advocate of consumer-owned power. His version also won the support of one Republican.
Among other things, the amendment would require a periodic franchise renewal process for CMP and Versant, with competition for monopoly privileges, competitive bidding for utility spending to keep rates down, audits of report card data submitted by the utilities and strong penalties for a finding of utility misbehavior by state regulators.
“While it does not require the replacement of CMP and Versant by a low-cost, locally controlled utility, the bipartisan amendment does put forward actual accountability measures,” said Andrew Blunt, the interim executive director of Our Power. “We urge policymakers to support the bipartisan amendment, and we also urge Mainers to continue pushing for the consumer-owned utility referendum since no amount of regulation can fix the poor service and high costs baked into CMP and Versant’s DNA.”
But Berry’s amended bill stands little chance of making it through the full Legislature and would face a likely veto from Mills if it did, said Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York. The committee’s co-chair, Lawrence is pushing for a middle-of-the-road version of the governor’s bill presented by Sen. Stacey Brenner, D-Cumberland, as amended by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the Senate majority leader.
Lawrence, a veteran lawmaker and former Senate president, said the so-called Vitelli amendment is the best bet to increase accountability for customers now. He said he plans to move the bill for a vote in the Senate next month, where it will first be taken up.
In Lawrence’s view, Our Power doesn’t want utilities to improve their performance because that would blunt the justification for consumer ownership. But even if their campaign is successful, he said, litigation will tie up any takeover for years.
“We need to achieve accountability now,” Lawrence said. “That’s what customers want.”
The Republican version was presented by Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook.
Democratic control of the Legislature and governor’s office suggest that final debate will revolve around some form of the Berry or Vitelli amendments. And Jeff Marks, Maine director for the environmental advocacy group Acadia Center, expects some compromise to emerge. He considers Lawrence and Vitelli to be pragmatists who will be able to move Mills’ bill through the Senate.
It would then remain to be seen how the bill fares in the House, where opinions may be more divided. But in an era of record high energy prices and public discontent, Marks said there’s pressure to do something before the legislative session ends.
“I don’t think any lawmaker wants to leave Augusta with headlines that read, ‘Legislature fails to hold utilities accountable,’ ” he said.
Read the full article in the Portland Press Herald here.