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Questions Raised About Bill to Restructure Efficiency Maine
03/14/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

One of Gov. Paul LePage's state priorities is to reduce electricity costs in Maine, which he says are a key component in creating jobs. To that end, the governor has introduced four bills, including one that would restructure the Efficiency Maine Trust, which operates a quasi-state agency that distributes money for energy-saving initiatives.

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The bill's sponsor is Senate Republican Mike Thibodeau. "The bill would bring Efficiency Maine--the Trust--back under a little more supervision by this committee moving forward.

The bill has three main parts, one of which deals with governance. Right now, Efficiency Maine's chairman is elected by its board. But the bill would allow the governor to appoint the trust's chairman.

The bill would also require Efficiency Maine to submit its budget to the Legislature for review. Ken Fletcher, the director of the Office of Energy Independence and Security, told members of the Energy, Utilities and technology committee that it's an important change, given the recent scandal at the Maine Turnpike Authority over inappropriate use of funds. "You can always delegate responsibility and authority, but you can never lose accountability," he said.

But just three years ago, Efficiency Maine was restructured to insulate it from political interests. Democratic Rep. Jon Hinck, who serves on the committee, was part of the group who came up with the plan. He asked Fletcher whether allowing the Legislature to oversee the budget would be a step backward and allow funds to be swept to fill another hole.

"I fear if we pass this here, we would put it in sweeping territory. Am I reading that wrong?" Hinck asked.

"Well, only if we don't trust the people with the broom," Fletcher said.

"But we've never trusted them!" Hinck responded.

Fletcher did eventually say he would be willing to add a provision to prevent funds from being swept away.

Another key part of the bill changes some of the focus of Efficiency Maine's programs. Right now, its emphasis is on efficiency. The bill would mandate they expand their programs to provide funding and rebates for alternative technologies--specifically, electric heating systems.

"We also need to empower Maine people with other options. Because I don't know what the prices of oil wil be next week, next winter, or five years from now," Fletcher said. "But I am certainly not going to just expect that the problem is going to solve itself."

But some committee members said by focusing support on electric heating systems, the bill chooses winners and losers. What's more, the bill would require Efficiency Maine to guarantee profits on loans utility companies offer to customers for heating systems. That's a detail that Adam Lee, a member of of Efficency Maine's board and owner of a car dealership, found particularly troubling.

"It does not seem like it's the business of government to guarantee a for-profit company a rate of return in bad loans, and frankly I'm shocked that our governor--particularly this governor--would propose this," Lee said.

On the whole, there were many questions about the bill, which was introduced less than a week ago. Rep. Hinck told Fletcher the committee needed more information and evidence that the changes the bill mandates would indeed translate into savings for Mainers.

"I know from sitting next to you on this committee, that faced with a late-in-the-session bill that has significant implications, you would have always wanted to have a very solid analysis of the implications of all the measures beforehand," Hinck said.

Hinck asked for that information when the committee has a work session on the bill. Last year, Efficiency Maine had its most successful year, saving Mainers an estimated $400 million in lifetime energy costs.


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