Lawmakers Take Sharper Aim At Utility Merger Review

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The saying ‘politics makes strange bedfellows’ is being proved true in the growing legislative debate over the merger between Central Vermont Public Service Corporation and Green Mountain Power.

Progressives, Republicans, Independents and Democrats are all plotting strategy together. Their goal is to get the Legislature involved in the merger case.

Burlington Progressive Chris Pearson is a skeptic of the deal. He wants ratepayers to get a direct refund for helping rescue CVPS a decade ago.

"To me there’s promise that is floating out there of a bailout being repaid," Pearson said. "There’s sort of a corporate responsibility, and an obligation as I see it to hold people to their promises."

The utilities want to invest $21 million in efficiency and weatherization programs. Opponents want the money to go directly back to ratepayers. Pearson, speaking to about 30 lawmakers across the political spectrum, said the public is growing wary of the deal. And he said voters are particularly incensed that the merged utility could then recover its pay-back money through higher rates.

"I think there is even more agreement that whatever system they come up with to repay people should not then be recouped from ratepayers," he said.

The group of lawmakers was trying to decide how to bring up a bill that would require the Public Service Board to order direct ratepayer refunds.

The legislation is now stuck in the House Commerce Committee, with no clear timeframe for when it might get voted out. So Barre Independent Paul Poirier said the plan now is to pull the bill out of committee.

"If we don’t have an indication that the bill is going to be on the floor early next week then we will exercise what we can under our rules," he said. "And our rules say that anytime the body can ask to have a committee relieved of a bill."

Poirier is a veteran of three decades in the Legislature. He gave the caucus a history lesson about a debate in the 1980s when lawmakers bucked their leadership and created a fund to care for elderly people in their homes.

"The governor was against it. And a Republican speaker was against it," Poirier recalled. "And a Republican stood up on the floor and asked the committee to be relieved of the bill. And after a long debate it passed and today we have the independence fund. So sometimes at the end of the session, if you believe the cause is right, that’s why the rules allow us to do this.

House Speaker Shap Smith is opposed to the Legislature getting involved in the merger case. But he does question whether the merged utility should be allowed to recover its ratepayer refund through higher rates.

"I think there are legitimate reasons to ask whether that’s appropriate or not," Smith said. "I am curious why the Public Service Board decided that that was okay in the last docket, and I would want to fully understand why they think that should happen in this docket.

Smith says he expects the full House to debate the merger issue before the end of the legislative session. The speaker says the session is now expected to adjourn in early May.

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