Lawmakers enact budget agreement, House rejects Gov. Mills’ utility accountability proposal

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Both the House of Representative and the Senate convened on April 19 for the penultimate day of the 130th Legislature’s second session. The supplemental budget was passed during the session and a utility accountability bill brought forward by Gov. Janet Mills failed unexpectedly following a vote in the House of Representatives.

Supplemental Budget

The supplemental budget, LD 1995, was introduced in the House on April 19. 

Both Rep. Teresa Pierce (D-Falmouth) and Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford) rose to speak in favor of the bill.

Pierce and Millett worked together in Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee to craft the budget, with Pierce moving line items into the budget and Millett seconding those motions. 

Reps. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship), Laurel Libby (R-Auburn), and Sophia Warren (D-Scarborough) all rose to speak in opposition to the bill. Evangelos said he couldn’t support the bill because it gave relief checks to people who have six-figure incomes. Warren said the budget doesn’t do enough for climate change. Libby objected to the bill because it lacks adequate funding for indigent legal services.

The House voted 119 to 16 to accept the AFA Committee’s unanimous majority report.

Following the vote, Warren rose to offer an amendment to the bill.

“I understand that I am in quite a minority at this point. At the same time, I feel the amendment I’ve brought before us is a very reasonable one,” Warren said, before explaining that her amendment would reduce the amount allocated in the budget agreement for relief checks by $100 million and instead invest it in climate change programs.

“I know that I don’t have the votes on this today, but I hope that I can have your votes perhaps tomorrow or next year, or certainly by the end of this decade,” Warren continued.

Warren’s amendment was indefinitely postponed. 

Libby then rose to offer her amendment to the budget. Libby’s amendment would suspend the state’s gax tax through the end of 2022. 

“Suspending Maine’s gas tax is good for Maine business and families alike,” Libby said.

Libby’s amendment was also indefinitely postponed.

The budget was passed to be engrossed under the hammer.

The Senate subsequently voted to pass to engross the budget under the hammer.

The bill was then sent back to the House, which voted 114 to 6 on final passage, meeting the required two-thirds majority required to be passed as an emergency measure. The Senate subsequently voted 32 to 2 on final passage, also meeting the threshold required.

Mills’ office signaled she would sign the bill “as soon as” Wednesday.

“We have shown once again that through hard work we can bring together Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to do what is right for Maine people. I applaud the Legislature for their good work,” Mills said in a statement.

Utility Accountability

LD 1959, a bill that creates a report card system for transmission and distribution utilities and a path for them to be sold if they do not meet minimum service standards, was introduced in the Senate on April 18 and subsequently tabled pending adoption of one of three reports from the Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology (EUT).

The Senate considered the bill again on April 19 to debate accepting a committee amendment sponsored by Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland). 

Brenner rose to speak in support of her amendment.

“For too long we’ve failed to take action to address the failures of these investor-owned utilities, and today we can finally right that wrong,” Brenner said.

Brenner further said the state’s investor-owned utilities, namely Versant Power and Central Maine Power (CMP), have been operating as monopolies and receiving failing grades for service. She also said she personally supports an initiative to put the creation of a consumer-owned utility on the ballot and hopes others get the chance to vote for it. 

Brenner also spoke to different pieces of LD 1959, including a provision requiring utilities to submit plans for integrated grid planning, which she said “holds the potential to save millions of dollars for ratepayers.” 

“Right now utilities do grid planning on their own,” Brenner continued, calling this a “gift” to utilities and saying it allows them to focus on what’s best for shareholders rather than ratepayers.

Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) rose to speak in opposition to the bill. Stewart co-sponsored the bill and was the author of a different committee amendment. He said he agreed to co-sponsor the legislation in good faith but there were several parts of the bill he considered problematic.

Stewart raised objections to the report card system created by LD 1959 which directs the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to penalize utilities up to $1 million for failing to meet the performance standards outlined by the bill.

Stewart questioned several of those standards, including customer satisfaction, which he said could be “equated to a popularity contest.”

“It would be incredibly hard to nail down what that means. How do you improve that?” Stewart said. 

Sen. David Miramant (D-Knox) also spoke in opposition to the bill. He said he agreed with most of Brenner’s argument, particularly as it related to integrated grid planning, but argued Maine should limit the length of the contracts it awards to utilities. 

“Other states have been smart. They have a term that you have this contract for,” said Miramant, noting Maine is one of two states that do not have this.

“For these reasons, this is not a good bill,” he continued.

The Senate voted 19 to 15 to adopt Brenner’s amended version of the bill. Sen. Mark Lawrence (D-York) then offered a floor amendment, which limits the service standards the PUC is required to develop to utilities with more than 50,000 customers. The amendment also requires the PUC to use stakeholder input to identify priorities in developing a clean, affordable and reliable electric grid. 

Lawrence said his amendment would reduce ratepayer costs and retain the PUC’s control of grid planning, but would put more burden on utilities to provide information for that purpose. 

“This will bring accountability now to our utilities. And more than anything else, that’s what we have to achieve,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence continued that he knew LD 1959 was a good bill because of what he described as an “unholy alliance” between investor-owned utilities and proponents of a consumer-owned utility in opposing the bill.

“But why I know that this is a good bill, is that the utilities are opposing it. They don’t want this to pass. In committee, I was even surprised that those who support the consumer-owned utility are opposing it too,” Lawrence said.

Sens. Eloise Vitelli (D-Sagadahoc) and Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) also spoke briefly in favor of the bill. Bennett said he initially opposed the bill but believed it had been improved, then requested a roll call vote.

The Senate voted 20 to 14 to adopt Lawrence’s amendment. It voted 20 to 14 on engrossment of the bill.

Later the same day, the House considered Brenner’s amendment to the bill. Before the vote, Rep. Wadsworth (R-Hiram) rose to speak against the bill, saying he was not sent to the State House to vote to raise electricity rates, which he contended LD 1959 would do.

Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) also rose to speak in opposition of the bill, saying it was “much ado about nothing.” Grohoski claimed it will not promote accountability despite the bill’s title. 

Grohoski urged House members to support a different amendment to the bill, which she voted to support when it was being worked by the EUT Committee. 

Rep Kessler also rose to speak in opposition to the bill, saying he agreed with Grohoski.

“This version of the bill might spruce things up a little bit, but I agree with the representative from Ellsworth that it presents a false sense of accountability,” Kessler said. 

Reps. Stanley Zeigler (D-Montville), Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick), Melanie Sachs (D-Freeport) spoke in support of the motion.

Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) spoke in opposition to the motion, echoing others who said the bill would not improve accountability. Berry said passage of the amendment would be “worse than doing nothing,” and would allow utilities to write their own report cards. 

Rep. Scott Cuddy (D-Winterport) rose to speak in support of the bill, saying he liked the bill in part because the state’s public advocate helped draft it and was involved in the amendment process in committee.

The House voted 51 to 83 against adopting Brenner’s amendment. Berry then moved for the adoption of a committee amendment he sponsored. That motion also failed by a vote of 43 to 91.

Following a failed vote to table the bill pending adoption of the final committee report, the bill was indefinitely postponed by a vote of 100 to 34. It was then sent to the Senate in non-concurrence.

Later in the Senate, the body voted 18-16 to recede and concur with the House on LD 1959. Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland) then moved for the chamber to reconsider the action whereby it receded and concurred with the House on the bill, and Sen. Vitelli motioned to table the item until later in the day’s session.

Joint Order

A joint order was introduced in the Senate late Tuesday evening to extend the legislative session for two days. The legislature is required to adjourn the third Wednesday in April, or Wednesday, April 20, 2022 in the second session of the 130th Legislature.

The joint order was presented by Sen. Vitelli supported on the floor by Sen. Matthea Daughtry (D-Cumberland), who said legislative staff needed more time to do its work due to a flood at the State House in previous weeks that displaced State House employees.

Sen. Matt Pouliot said he respects the nonpartisan legislative staff but noted the body had plenty of time to finish its work over the course of the session, requesting a roll call on the joint order.

The motion failed by a vote of 21-13, two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to extend the legislative session.

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