AUGUSTA, Maine - You might have heard about a clerical error in a huge omnibus energy bill two years ago that has led to a nearly $40 million cut in funding to the Efficiency Maine Trust, an agency that oversees programs to help Mainers cut energy costs. The effort to correct that error has turned partisan.
And Democrats - and even some Republicans - are accusing Gov. Paul LePage of an attempted power grab.
Everyone at the State House agrees that the unintentional deletion of a single word in the 2013 omnibus energy bill has come with a cost to the Efficiency Maine Trust. Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature's governing body divided evenly along party lines last week over a bill that would have provided a simple fix for the problem.
But House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says a solution is still within reach. To be successful, however, Fredette says colleagues must be aware of the political realities in Augusta, and he says his new bill is crafted with current power structure in mind.
"That means it has to get through a Democratic House, a Republican Senate and then to have a bill that the governor can sign off on," Fredette said.
Fredette's bill, which has the support of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, replaces the errant "and" in the omnibus energy bill to restore the $60 million funding cap for Efficiency Maine. But it also does a lot more - it transfers oversight of the Trust to LePage's energy office.
"It creates and elevates the Office of the Energy Director to a cabinet level position with an accompanying deputy commissioner position," Fredette said. "This portion of the bill raises the importance of energy here in Maine regionally and nationally."
Fredette's bill would also transfer $300,000 from the Efficiency Maine Trust to the Maine Energy Office annually, and require that the Trust's executive director post, currently held by Michael Stoddard, be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The executive director would report to the governor's energy commissioner.
And while the bill enlarges the bureaucracy with a new cabinet level position, Fredette says it by no means suggests that Republicans have gone soft on their pledge to reduce the size of state government.
"I think the issue here is that I think the governor's budget that is put forward looks to continue to downsize government, and so I think when you look at the overall structure of government there are places are where you are going to want to add positions, and there are going to be places where you want to take away positions," Fredette said.
Democrats object to Fredette's bill because they believe it weakens the control of the Trust's board and transfers power to the governor. They want to submit their own fix for the funding cap by simply offering a bill that contains the word "and," as the Legislature intended in 2013.
They also have the support of Republican Sen. Roger Katz, who opposes Fredette's solution on a basic principle. "I just personally think that any effort to try to extract additional concessions in order to fix a clerical error is wrong," Katz said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham, says Democrats and Republicans will have to join together and be prepared to override a likely veto from LePage of any bill that doesn't meet his expectations.
"I think what you're seeing today is what we hope will last throughout the session, and that is reasonableness," Diamond said. "People getting together, Democrats and Republicans having a clean fix, as we've heard, and I think we can do that with this bill. And, hopefully, we can do that with the rest of the session."
The competing bills are currently in the process of being drafted by their sponsors and are expected to be referenced to a legislative policy committee later this month.