AUGUSTA, Maine - Gov. Paul LePage has chosen an economist from the University of Tennessee Institute for Nuclear Security to fill a spot on the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
If confirmed, R. Bruce Williamson would replace outgoing Commissioner David Littell, the last remaining appointee of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
Williamson says he would bring an economist's view to the deliberations of the PUC, based on what’s best for Maine people, not politics. He has a long resume, mostly in the private sector and academia, and has done research in both electrical markets and telecommunications.
Williamson says he learned about the opening on the Maine PUC from a friend. "I looked into it and I was interested," he says. "For me, it's kind of coming full circle, back to why I originally went to graduate school. I am fascinated with utility economics and regulatory economics, and it's just something I am really excited about."
Williamson says that during the interview for the job he was asked by members of the governor's staff about his political affiliation, and says he told them he is not enrolled in any party. He says if confirmed he will vote on issues based on the law and on the best policies.
"My first job as a commissioner is to follow what the Legislature has decided," he says. "But I think the second job is tied in with listening closely to stakeholders but making whatever decisions we have to make in an independent - independent is not the right word - but in an objective and professional fashion."
Given the LePage administration's recent push to remove the referendum provision from the law governing the siting of nuclear power plants, a move seen by some as an attempt to bring small-scale nuclear power generation into Maine, Williamson acknowledges that his current job may cause what he calls "unwarranted concerns."
Williamson is the senior economist at the University of Tennessee Institute for Nuclear Security. Its focus is on safe and secure operation of research reactors around the world that produce isotopes for medical uses. He says the center does not deal with commercial reactors that produce electricity.
Williamson says while electric utility regulation is complicated, it's really quite simple economics for most people. "Is power going to be reliable? That’s what people want. They don’t want lights that go off, heat that goes off in the middle of winter. They want reliable power at an affordable price."
He acknowledges that Maine’s telecommunications issues are also complex, and that the puzzle of how best to provide both traditional phone service and broadband Internet access is still unsolved. "The concern about who has access and the price of access is a big deal. It needs more attention."
Williamson's nomination is likely to be well-scrutinized when he goes before the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee for his confirmation hearing. The assistant Senate minority leader, Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick, serves on the committee. She says she'll keep an open mind on Williamson’s nomination, but has not been pleased with Gov. LePage’s previous appointments of Chairman Mark Vannoy and Commissioner Carlisle McLean, or their votes on several issues.
"Truthfully, while I was totally open to the governor’s last two appointments, I can say his appointments have turned out to be huge disappointments for me," Hill says, "and I think to many, many people in Maine."
Rep. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat who co-chairs the committee, says Williamson will be questioned about his independence from Gov. Lepage, and about his background in economics, which Dion believes is a good skill to bring to the commission.
No date has been set for the confirmation hearing.