MONTPELIER — The wind has left the sails of an effort to impose legislative conditions on a controversial merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service.
But even as critics of the utilities’ plan to compensate ratepayers conceded legislative defeat Thursday, they said they’ve won where it matters most.
“While we haven’t secured a legislative victory, we have definitely won in the court of public opinion and successfully raised this issue to the level where it can’t be ignored,” said Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive.
Pearson is one of four House lawmakers — the others are a Republican, a Democrat and an independent — who helped transform the $702 million merger proposal into one of the enduring stories of the 2012 legislative session.
At issue was how the utilities plan to return $21 million to the CVPS ratepayers forced to pay above-market power rates in 2001 because of an “imprudent” power deal with Hydro-Quebec.
Pearson and others spearheaded a movement to pass an amendment that would require the utilities, as a condition of any merger, to issue $76 checks to approximately 130,000 CVPS customers.
The utilities, by contrast, want to satisfy the “windfall” mechanism by investing $21 million in weatherization and other efficiency programs. They also want to recoup that $21 million by charging the same ratepayers that bailed them out higher rates in the future.
Pearson’s amendment failed in the House, where Speaker Shap Smith had voiced stiff opposition to interfering in an open regulatory docket. But momentum behind the issue transferred to the Senate, which late last week attached language to the budget that would have effectively accomplished the same goal.
It quickly became clear that the Senate amendment would not survive the budget process — something that became official when the budget conference committee struck the language from the final version Thursday.
But the issue was still alive as late as Wednesday night, when Senate lawmakers made a last-gasp attempt to attach their windfall amendment to the energy bill. The language was ruled not germane to the underlying bill, however, and hopes by and large faded for good.
The House today will see attempts to attach a similarly worded amendment to the energy bill, though they are expected to prove fruitless.
“Realistically we don’t have any opportunities left to get what we were looking to get,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, a Barre independent. “But people are talking about this now and thinking about this now in a way they weren’t before, and I don’t think those voices are going to be ignored.”
Even some opponents of the windfall amendments say the noise emanating on the issue won’t fall on deaf ears. Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat who helped keep rank-and-file support for the merger amendment at bay, said he thinks members of the Public Service Board are more aware of public sentiment on the issue than they would have been otherwise. The board is considering whether to approve the merger deal.
“I think they know the public is going to be watching, and I expect to see a decision out of the Public Service Board that actually touches all the bases of all the issues that have been brought to the forefront during this legislative session,” Klein said Thursday. “I don’t think they’re tone deaf. And I don’t think that’s bad.”
The three-person board is expected to issue a decision late this month or early next. The contents of that ruling, Klein said, could spark yet another public policy debate in the Legislature in 2013.
“I think that whatever the decision is, that there will be people in this building who will be affected by it one way or another, and will react one way or another, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see legislation addressing their reactions,” he said.
peter.hirschfeld @rutlandherald.comMORE IN Vermont News
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