- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the top Republican in the Maine House unveiled a bill Wednesday to fix an error that caused regulators to slash funding for energy efficiency programs while bringing significant changes to state government, including the creation of an energy commissioner.

House GOP Leader Ken Fredette’s proposal ties a fix to the funding shortfall that Democrats and environmental groups are seeking to policies that LePage supports, like giving the governor more control over Efficiency Maine Trust, an independent agency that provides programs that help residents lower their energy bills.

But Democrats and some Republicans say it’s inappropriate for Fredette and LePage to exploit the situation to get their plan approved.

“I am very willing to discuss any legislation having to do an energy office or how we talk about energy in the state of Maine, but it shouldn’t be part of the conversation” to restore energy efficiency funding, said Assistant Democratic House Leader Sara Gideon, who is pushing a separate bill with support from at least two Republicans that would simply raise the funding cap imposed on Efficiency Maine Trust.

When lawmakers passed a sweeping energy bill in 2013, they intended for the cap on one source of funding for Efficiency Maine to be set at $60 million, but there was a typo in the law’s complex funding formula. The commission that regulates the state’s utilities interpreted that to mean that funding should be capped at about $22 million.

Democrats and environmentalists say that will cause efficiency programs to be slashed and residents’ bills to increase, and they want to simply fix the drafting error. But Fredette says that won’t get enough support from LePage and Republicans, who oppose the move because it would be paid for by putting a surcharge on ratepayers’ electric bills.

Under Fredette’s proposal, the Governor’s Energy Office, which currently has just two staffers, would become a Cabinet department and be named the Maine Energy Office. Instead of a director, it would be headed by a commissioner, which Fredette says would elevate the “importance of energy here in Maine, regionally and nationally.”

The measure would also give LePage the power to nominate the executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust, who currently is chosen by its board of directors. The executive director would report to the energy commissioner, which Fredette says will allow the administration to provide better oversight over the agency.

Fredette said he believes his proposal is something that can be accomplished quickly “if reasonable minds prevail.” But he acknowledged that it’s likely to be an uphill fight as some Republicans agree with Democrats that a clean bill fix to the Efficiency Maine funding problem is the only way forward.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, who has signed onto Gideon’s bill, said he is confident they will be able to get the two-thirds support for the proposal in the Legislature needed to override a likely veto from LePage.

“Any effort to try to extract additional concessions in order to fix a clerical error is wrong,” he said.

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Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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