Energy bill gives a jolt to the final three days

Today the General Assembly begins a three-day countdown to its midnight Wednesday adjournment with a calendar crowded with bills deemed largely irrelevant to broad constituencies.

Exceptions include an ambitious energy bill, education reforms, efforts to streamline environmental permitting and a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, a chore that brought key legislators and budget officials to the Capitol on Sunday.

Introduced as a massive amendment last week, the energy legislation injected a late dose of drama and intensity to a three-month session dominated and, at times, paralyzed by a budget crisis.

Only three bills had been signed into law as of Saturday night.

The Senate is scheduled to debate the energy bill today, despite the failure of sponsors to assuage concerns raised by regulators and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, whose staff has hinted at a veto.

“I have to tell you there are a lot of concerns that have been raised about this,” Rell said Friday as she entered the Capitol.

The legislation is the result of a rapprochement recently reached by the co-chairs of the Energy and Technology Committee, Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, and Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect. Their personal and philosophical differences have stopped major energy legislation since 2007.

Last week, they unveiled a proposal to reorganize, rename and broaden the responsibilities of the Department of Public Utilities Control and to subsidize solar energy.

The bill has two goals that may be conflicting: to jump-start a solar industry in Connecticut with subsidies by ratepayers; and to drive down the second-highest electric rates in the United States. It thrust the legislature into the confusing, deregulated world of buying, selling and delivering electricity.

The bill would force the state to withdraw from ISO-New England, the industry group responsible for regional transmission lines and ensuring overall reliability of the power system. Nardello blames ISO, which stands for independent system operators, for driving up the cost of the wholesale price of electricity.

“We share deeply in the frustration that Connecticut is subject to ISO decision making that may not align with our specific goals or needs,” Kevin Delgobbo, the DPUC chairman, wrote to Fonfara and Nardello.

But jettisoning the state’s ties to ISO-New England could leave the state with billions of dollars in financial obligations to the owners of regional transmission lines, he wrote.

In negotiations Friday, Fonfara and Nardello agreed to drop the legislative requirement that Connecticut leave ISO immediately, and they were open to setting a longer-range timetable for the consolidation of energy planning and regulation in a revamped power authority.

But Nardello refused overtures to dramatically cut the proposed solar subsidies or to bow to demands by energy retailers to back off from strict consumer protections.

The retailers ran full-page newspaper ads over the weekend claiming that the bill would lead to higher rates, but the legislation is supported by a coalition of solar companies, consumer groups and environmentalists.

“Sometimes you can tell a lot by the company you keep,” the coalition told legislators in an information sheet circulated Saturday at the Capitol.

Over the weekend, the industry stepped up its opposition with full-page newspapers ads that claimed the legislation would dampen competition and raise electric rates.

The House today may take up an education reform bill overwhelmingly passed last week by the Senate.

Awaiting action in the Senate is a bill the House approved Saturday to revitalize and expand the University of Connecticut Health Center.