Senate to return at noon, uncertain on energy bill

The Senate recessed at 1:30 a.m. today without debating an energy bill whose prospects are growing dimmer as the General Assembly nears its annual adjournment deadline of midnight Wednesday.

The Senate Democratic majority followed Monday night’s session with a caucus to review changes in the bill and determine if there is the support to take up the bill when the Senate returns at noon.

“That’s to be determined,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, D-Brooklyn.

Strikes against the bill include a threatened veto by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the prospect of long debates in the Senate and then again in the House of Representatives.

“I can tell you one thing: The House is in for a very long debate on this matter,” said Rep. Sean J. Williams, R-Watertown, the ranking Republican on the Energy and Technology Committee.

Power always shifts to the minority at the end of every session, when a willingness to prolong a debate usually prompts the majority to pass over controversial items.

“The Democrats are in the majority,” said Williams, who proposed a less ambitious compromise that he says could pass and be signed into law. “They can do whatever they want. But are they willing to spend that amount of time?”

Further complicating the prospects for passage of the energy bill is the hopes of still passing a budget and a short list of bills with a fiscal impact, including a Senate education bill designed to attract federal “Race to the Top” funds.

Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the Education Committee, angrily confronted House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, when it became clear the House would not pass the education bill Monday.

“What are they waiting for?” he asked.

But it was the energy bill, the most heavily lobbied bill of the session, that provided the most drama. Its backers say it will help lower electric rates, better protect consumers and jump-start a solar industry with subsidies.

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups, joined by the solar industry, held a press conference to press the Senate for passage.

“This bill is a huge step towards a cleaner,more efficient and more affordable energy future for Connecticut,” said Christopher Phelps, the director of Environment Connecticut.

But the energy industry and the Rell administration said the subsidies would drive up rates. They also warned that the bill, which set a goal of reducing rates by 15 percent, could dampen competition by energy retailers that now compete with Northeast Utilities and United Illuminating.

But the biggest opponent of the complicated bill appeared to be uncertainty about how it would affect a deregulated industry that now operates like a commodities future market, with old distribution companies like NU and UI and the smaller retailers contracting to buy power from generation companies.

Sen. Robert Duff, D-Norwalk, the vice chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee broke with his chairman, Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, and was opposing the bill.

“I’m not working against it. I’ve just stated my opposition,” Duff said.

The bill attempts to do too much with uncertain results, he said.

Fonfara insisted he still had sufficient votes for passage.

“I think people want a vote on this,” he said. “They like it, and they support it.”

His co-chair, Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, repeatedly visited the Senate chamber to lobby the bill throughout the evening.