AUGUSTA, Maine — A spokesman for Maine's Public Utilities Commission is defending a controversial 2-1 vote by commissioners Tuesday to limit spending for energy efficiency programs to $22 million a year.
This is well below the $60 million cap that some lawmakers say they intended when they passed a widely supported omnibus energy bill in 2013. And the lone holdout on the panel says concerned parties may have to pursue a remedy in the courts.
Commissioner David Littell, the only member of the PUC who is not an appointee of Gov. Paul LePage, stood alone in opposition to the vote to slash funding for Efficiency Maine. Efficiency Maine is the administrator for the state's energy efficiency programs.
Littell says a provision of the Omnibus Energy bill called for a cap of four percent of "total electricity supply AND transmission and distribution costs." There was no actual figure mentioned. And the term was not defined in statute. So, it was up to the commission to define what those words mean. Two commissioners interpreted the language one way and he interpreted it another.
"The commission majority thought it was clear what that meant," Lhe says. "I think by virtue of the comments that we got and the discussion that we had and the disagreement that we have, it's quite clear that it's not clear."
And the fact that it was not clear, says Littell, means regulators should be looking to legislative history as a guide. Littell says research into the legislative history shows that the word "AND" was accidentally dropped out by the Revisor's Office as the omnibus energy bill was making its way through the Legislature. So, he thinks the whole matter has been muddled by a clerical error.
"Pending the Commission reconsidering it, the remedy would be for the parties always have the option of going to court," he says. "The Legislature could step in and clarify it but I doubt that will happen because the reality what happened is the omnibus bill was very much a compromise piece of legislation, and in this case going back for a discreet fix you don't have sort of a broad consensus to pass a bill."
That's because some lawmakers are more interested in natural gas pipelines and others are more interested in energy efficiency.
Environmental groups and some Democrats are worried the vote represents a huge setback for energy efficiency programs to help homeowners, small businesses and industry lower energy costs. Efficiency Maine calculates that for every dollar spent on energy efficiency, there is a net savings of $7 for consumers.
Littell says he's disappointed that such a clear case of legislative intent get undone by a single vote. But Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the PUC, maintains that the omnibus energy law was "completely clear and unambiguous."
"When the words passed by the legislature are not clear, then that could be an occasion where you would turn to what was the intent," he says. "But again, in the majority's opinion, as passed by the Legislature last year, the majority of the commissioners felt that the legislation was completely clear. So, in that situation you wouldn't need to go to the intent."
And Lanphear says the PUC's intent is to implement the law, as written.