Utility executives and their allies in the business community are urging the Legislature not to tamper with a merger agreement between the state’s two largest power companies.
Vermont’s business leaders say it’s a bad idea to intervene in a case now before the Public Service Board.
Vermont’s biggest utility deal is under fire in the Statehouse. A growing chorus of lawmakers is demanding that ratepayers be reimbursed for bailing out Central Vermont Public Service Corporation a decade ago.
So the utilities brought in their heavy hitters to speak with one voice before two House committees. Assembled were the CEOs of the state’s two largest power companies, leading business executives, and a former chairwoman of the Public Service Board.
Louise McCarren chaired the board under former Republican Governor Richard Snelling. She delivered a blunt warning to those who want to legislatively mandate a refund to ratepayers.
"You’re reaching into a case, and you want to take out a piece of that case, and you want to say, OK, it has to be decided this way," McCarren said. " I think it is a very, very serious problem for you. First thing that’s going to happen is you’ll undercut the authority of the board."
Elizabeth Miller heads the Department of Public Service, which advocates for consumers on utility issues. She told the committees that the state won important concessions in its negotiations, including increased public control over the transmission network.
"Frankly, that’s a headline issue from my point of view. That was key to the negotiations with the petitioners," said Miller.
Miller said the merger between CVPS and Green Mountain Power should be viewed as a total package that has overall benefits.
But she could not promise that the merger will reduce electric rates over time. "I think the difficulty for the average Vermonter, indeed the difficulty for all of us in looking at this is understanding that merger savings will reduce pressure on rates, make them lower than they otherwise would been, even if the world is such that rates in general go up over time for lots of other reasons."
Business leaders repeatedly warned lawmakers not to mess with the merger case.
"It would represent not only bad public policy but set a dangerous precedent for future regulatory matters," said Lisa Ventriss, president of the Vermont Business Roundtable.
"Such action by the Legislature would create an undisciplined regulatory environment of uncertainty and unpredictability"
After the hearing, it was clear some lawmakers heard the warnings. Kurt Wright is a Republican from Burlington who is co-sponsor of the bill that directs the PSB to refund money to ratepayers. GMP wants to spend the money instead on weatherization and efficiency programs, but Wright doesn’t like that idea.
"I’m hoping there’s a way that we can deal with this that would allow ratepayers to be paid back money rather than just weatherization — short of intervening," he said.
Wright thinks the best outcome would be for Governor Peter Shumlin to re-open negotiations with the utilities to get a better deal for customers.