The Vermont Senate says if ratepayers bail out a utility, they should get their money back.
In an overwhelming vote, the Senate approved an amendment that affects a merger between the state’s two largest utilities. The amendment aims to make sure that customers of Central Vermont Public Service Corporation get a $21 million refund when the company is sold and then merged with Green Mountain Power.
The Senate vote came as the entire Statehouse seemed caught up in the debate over the utility merger. In the House, Arlington Democrat Cynthia Browning tried to convince her colleagues that CVPS customers deserve a refund for the higher rates they paid to keep the utility from bankruptcy.
"Why do we want to do this?" she asked. "We want to do this because we feel it’s a matter of economic justice and corporate accountability."
The utilities want to invest the refund money in weatherization and efficiency programs. Under a deal reached with the Shumlin Administration, they’d be allowed to recover the $21 million dollars in higher rates.
That doesn’t sit well with many legislators. So on one side are those like Browning who say the issue is so important that the Legislature needs to act, even though the merger case is now before the Public Service Board.
But Norwich Democrat Margaret Cheney spoke for opponents when she highlighted what she said were the dangers of lawmakers meddling in the PSB case.
"Make no mistake, this is a radical suggestion," Cheney said. "It is a radical amendment. It assumes the inability or the unwillingness of the Public Service Board to consider all the issues contained within the memorandum of understanding, including the handling of the $21 million and how ratepayers will be paid."
But as the House debate stretched on for hours, the Senate quickly took up a parallel measure. Windham Democrat Peter Galbraith argued that his amendment does not interject the Legislature into the PSB merger case.
"It doesn’t open any pending docket. It simply provides policy direction to the Public Service Board," he said. "When the ratepayers loan money to a financially troubled utility to bail it out for bad decisions they’ve made, and it’s agreed that that money should be paid back, that money in fact should be paid back."
Galbraith’s amendment was approved 27-3, and was attached to the must-pass budget bill.
Governor Peter Shumlin was not pleased. For weeks he’s warned lawmakers not to interfere in the merger case. And he released a stingy statement criticizing the Senate vote:
"The Senate action today interferes with an open PSB docket, undermines the credibility of the regulatory process and is an extreme overreach of legislative jurisdiction," Shumlin said.
The issue is far from settled. Once the Senate passes the budget bill, the utility amendment will become part of the negotiations between the House and the Senate.