- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A state legislative committee endorsed Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee to the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday amid growing concerns among some lawmakers that the traditionally independent panel is being inappropriately influenced by politics.

The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted 11-2 in favor of the nomination of Bruce Williamson, a senior economist at the Institute for Nuclear Security at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.

Two Democrats - Assistant Senate Minority Leader Dawn Hill and Rep. Deane Rykerson - voted against Williamson’s nomination. Williamson will now be considered by the full Republican-led Senate.

His nomination comes as the three-member panel that regulates utilities in Maine faces increased scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, who have sharply criticized its recent actions, like the reconsideration of two previously approved long-term wind power contracts.

During Thursday’s hearing, Democratic Rep. Christopher Babbidge said he was concerned to learn in an Associated Press story on Wednesday that LePage held a meeting with Chairman Mark Vannoy to discuss the long-term contracts on Jan. 30, less than a month before the commission voted to reconsider the projects.

Vannoy has said that meetings between the chairman and the governor aren’t historically unusual. He said that meetings with the governor to discuss process, not the details of cases, are appropriate.

Babbidge, however, said he found it very troubling.

“Can you imagine the national uproar if President Obama had met with the chief justice on the Affordable Care Act and just weeks later the court announced a decision in favor of Obamacare?” he said.

But the Democrat from Kennebunkport said he supported Williamson’s nomination because he was pleased that the economist has said he would never communicate with the governor about an open case.

Williamson, who was not present for Thursday’s vote, told the committee last week that he would be a fair judge who has an incredible passion for energy and economic issues. He said he has a strong ethical character and would treat the appointment seriously and professionally.

Legislative committees typically vote on nominees immediately following legislative hearings, but Democrats said they needed more time. That drew fierce criticism from LePage, who said that Democrats were playing politics with Williamson’s nomination.

The director of LePage’s Energy Office, Patrick Woodcock, said after the vote that Williamson’s record of professionalism spoke for itself. He said it had become a “politically difficult situation” but he was glad to see that lawmakers could rise above that to endorse Williamson’s nomination.


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

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