Vermont lawmakers plan out strategy for utility windfall issue
by Alan Panebaker | April 19, 2012 vtdigger.orgA group of Vermont lawmakers drew battle lines Thursday. If they don’t get an indication by early next week that H. 718 is going to come out on the floor, they will ask for a vote to relieve the commerce committee of the legislation.
A coalition of representatives struggled throughout a large part of the session to find a way to introduce a bill on the House floor that would require the state’s largest utility to pay ratepayers $21 million in cash as a requirement of the merger between Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp.
An agreement between the Vermont Department of Public Service and the utilities would have the money invested in an efficiency fund instead and allow them to recoup the money in rates. The benefits from using less electricity would satisfy an obligation the utilities took on in 2001 when the Public Service Board allowed them to raise rates because of a bad contract with Hydro-Quebec.
Rep. Paul Poirier, an independent, was one of the original supporters of the idea. The gist for many supporters of such an amendment is that ratepayers bailed out the state’s utilities, and they should get paid back now that the utilities are profitable again.
Rep. Patti Komline
“I don’t see how anybody can argue this does not hit a nerve of citizens around the state,” Poirier said Thursday.
Despite the outcry by some lawmakers, the issue has yet to see any debate in the House or Senate.
The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is hearing testimony this week on the issue, but Rep. Patti Komline said it does not appear the committee is going to release the bill for a vote.
“A vote to relieve the committee of the bill could be the only opportunity to vote on this issue,” Komline said.
Rep. Chris Pearson said the Legislature is stuck in an uncomfortable position of deciding whether to tell the Public Service Board or the Shumlin administration what to do or to stay out of it altogether.
“Our primary obligation is to the residents of Vermont,” he said. “They are looking to us for action. It’s not very satisfying to tell them we were a little uncomfortable to stick our fingers in over here or over there.”
House Speaker Shap Smith stated consistently this session that he is uncomfortable with the Legislature meddling in an open Public Service Board docket.
But he said the windfall merger issue should see some debate on the House floor in the coming weeks.
“It’s my belief that the bill will move before end of session,” he said. “I expect at some point in time before we go home there will be a debate on the amendment as well.”
Smith said H. 718 does not have to pass this session, but the commerce committee did support it. The bill deals with miscellaneous issues surrounding the Department of Public Service and Public Service Board.
Rep. Cynthia Browning, attempted to attach the windfall amendment to this year’s energy bill, but Smith said the amendment was not germane. The Senate is considering some sort of action also.
Smith said there were no tricks going on behind the scenes to avoid a debate.
“There are no procedural shenanigans going on here,” he said. “It will come out of committee when it’s ready, and it will be on the floor when it gets to the floor.”
The House set a goal of finishing the session by April 27, but with big pieces of legislation still pending in the Senate and a few lingering issues in the house, Smith said it’s getting harder to see how the Legislature can adjourn by that date.