AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage late Wednesday night vetoed a comprehensive energy bill, but the House a few minutes later overrode the veto by a vote of 121-11 after only short discussion.
The Senate is expected to take up its override vote June 26.
Among other things, the bill expands New England’s natural gas infrastructure, boosts funding for energy efficiency, directly lowers businesses' electricity costs and makes it more affordable for residents to abandon oil heat.
The bill passed the Senate 28-7 and the House 131-7 earlier this month. Both tallies would meet the threshold to override a LePage veto if all lawmakers stick to their original votes.
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy Committee over the past few months assembled elements from more than 12 pieces of legislation into a comprehensive energy bill that contained elements favored by Republicans and Democrats. Some of the elements originated in legislation proposed by LePage.
Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the Energy Committee and one of the bill's chief sponsors, called the veto "catastrophic," coming in the final minutes before the measure would have become law without LePage's signature.
The veto also came as lawmakers were barrelling toward adjournment for the current legislative session. They will return next week to finish their work, including veto override votes.
House and Senate lawmakers who had worked on the energy measure began an impromptu and near-immediate meeting on the Senate floor just after the veto message was received in the Legislature.
"It's never over until it's over," said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D- Scarborough, the House chairman of the Energy Committee and another sponsor of the bill. "We will just keep working it and trying to get it through."
Lobbyists who had been working on the bill for clients, including Maine's paper industry, offered their thanks to the lawmakers involved in the process.
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the chief GOP sponsor of the bill and the House minority leader, called the legislation "the most significant energy bill in a half-century to be passed by the Maine Legislature."
LePage objected throughout the process to parts of the legislation, including a provision that would allow the Maine Public Utilities Commission, rather than the Legislature, to set the systems benefit charge that’s added to nearly all electric bills to fund conservation and efficiency programs.
He pushed lawmakers to add provisions, including a slate of changes to Maine’s Wind Energy Act that would erase the state’s wind energy generation goals from state law.
In the end, LePage said he wouldn’t support the measure unless lawmakers passed legislation that would have required the PUC to reopen its review process for offshore wind energy projects and to consider an offshore wind energy pilot project developed at the University of Maine for support from electric ratepayers.
LePage has strongly opposed a PUC decision made earlier this year that awards ratepayer support to Statoil North America, a Norwegian company, for a pilot offshore wind energy project in which the company would moor four floating turbines in federal waters off the Maine coast.
Lawmakers who were instrumental in assembling the bill worked into the night Wednesday trying to develop language the governor found acceptable. Evidently, LePage wasn’t satisfied.
“I gave my word that if that one additional provision was included, I would let this bill go into law without my signature,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “There are many things we can disagree on, but we should all agree that our flagship university deserves the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”
As the energy bill is currently written, it allows the PUC to consider the University of Maine for ratepayer support if the Statoil project doesn’t secure necessary federal financing, if the company opts out of its Maine project or if the company doesn’t meet construction deadlines. The bill language specifically allows the University of Maine project to be considered for ratepayer support.
If the Senate also votes to override LePage’s veto, it would be the first time this legislative session that a LePage veto was overridden.
Although the governor vetoed the legislation, he is still keenly interested in parts of it, including a section that aims to spur pipeline construction in New England by allowing the state to buy up to $75 million in new pipeline capacity.
LePage recently met with representatives from Kinder Morgan, a major pipeline developer planning a pipeline expansion in northern Massachusetts, to discuss a potential investment by Maine ratepayers in the new pipeline.
Cleveland said early Thursday there was some question of whether the Senate could produce the votes to override the veto.
Cleveland said that while the measure was being held up by issues regarding the University of Maine and offshore wind development, the natural gas components of the bill were important to more than 10,000 Maine workers in the paper industry who would benefit from less costly electricity from the expanded use of natural gas in Maine.