AUGUSTA — Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday launched a fusillade of criticism against the Legislature’s Democratic majority for supporting bills that promote solar energy during one of the coldest winters in recent history.

Rolling out a new proposal on energy, LePage said the focus of “liberal” lawmakers on solar is misguided because many Maine citizens are “freezing” in their homes.

“I find it very, very disturbing that we have elderly that are going without heat,” LePage said. “We know of people who have to go out and buy a heating blanket and that’s the only heat in the house.”

LePage’s proposal would direct an additional $1 million to the state’s Efficiency Maine program to expand rebates for those who install alternative heating sources including heat pumps as well as high-efficiency wood and wood-pellet stoves.

The funding would come from revenue the state receives for selling timber on public lands. LePage’s proposal expands the amount of wood that can be harvested from public lands.  

Maine Agriculture Department spokesman John Bott confirmed that the department has internally agreed to increase the timber harvesting limit on public lands from last year’s ceiling of 115,000 cords to 141,000 cords in the current fiscal year, 160,000 cords in 2015 and 180,000 cords in 2016. The limit would remain at 180,000 cords per year for 20 years thereafter as long as periodic evaluation of the plan deems it appropriate.

Environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say the state would be cutting timber faster than it could grow it back, jeopardizing the health of the forest.  

“Taking money from the woods and lands that are held in public trust is a bad idea,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the NRCM. “Our public lands are not an ATM for us to fund programs with, whether those are good programs or bad ones.”

Voorhees said the NRCM appreciated LePage’s focus on efficiency and alternative heating sources, which they support. He noted that LePage in 2013 vetoed an energy bill that included funding for many of the ideas he touted Tuesday. In 2013, lawmakers overrode LePage’s veto of  LD 1559, passing the measure into law despite his opposition. 

LePage also suggested Tuesday that his proposal is meant to limit the damage of an anticipated spruce budworm outbreak that is moving into Maine from Canada.

The Legislature’s energy policies have focused on helping special-interest groups while ignoring the bulk of Maine people, LePage said.

“The Legislature upstairs is trying to give special-interest groups a monopoly on subsidies and a free pass and picking winners and losers, not allowing the free market to take over,” he said.

At least two bills before the Legislature would address solar energy. One would reinstate a rebate program for businesses and homeowners that install solar systems. The other would establish solar energy generation goals and direct a number of state entities, including the state’s Public Utilities Commission, to closely study solar.

The first proposal would fund the rebate program by adding a fee of about 5 cents a month to the average ratepayer’s bill.

But Patrick Woodcock, director of LePage’s energy office, said the governor would veto any bill that came to his desk seeking to increase electric rates to create subsidies for people who install solar systems on their homes.

Woodcock said the payback on solar-system investments takes about 10 years, compared to a two-year payback for alternative heating investments such as heat pumps. 

“We only have a limited amount of funds; we should put our finite resources into things that make the most difference,” Woodcock said. He said the Efficiency Maine Trust’s board of directors could decide independently to put more funding toward solar without a legislative directive. 

Woodcock said the board had decided that the best use of its resources and the use that would reach the most Mainers was in weatherization and heating-source-update programs.

Both LePage and Woodcock said they were not opposed to solar energy and in general supported expanding it in Maine to further diversify the state’s energy mix.

But they wouldn’t support investing public funds in systems that don’t have the best impact on reducing the cost of energy in Maine.

“We will support any, any form of energy that will help lower the costs on Maine people,” LePage said.  

LePage also noted Tuesday that despite working on the issue for three years, due to resistance from the Legislature, his administration has been unable to change Maine’s ranking as the 12th most expensive state for energy costs.

Democrats fired back Tuesday, saying LePage’s plan was vague on details.

House Assistant Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the proposal raised more questions than answers.

“We need some objective numbers about what our public forests could sustain before we could move forward on a proposal like this,” McCabe said. “We can’t treat our public forests like a yard sale.”

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