The legislative session ends, but lobbying over the energy bill goes on

An intense lobbying effort over a major energy bill passed last week on the final day of the regular legislative session has shifted from the General Assembly to an uncommitted Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

An email blast to AARP members, who number nearly 600,000 in Connecticut, has generated scores of phone calls urging Rell to sign the bill, while industry groups are pleading for her to veto the biggest energy bill since deregulation of the electric industry in 1998.

The bill expands the role of utility regulators, subsidizes solar power, sets energy standards for appliances and imposes tighter rules on how energy retailers sell to consumers.

Rell expressed serious misgivings about the legislation prior to passage, but advocates who have met with administration officials said Wednesday that the governor is undecided about the complex, far-reaching bill.


AARP’s John Erlingheuser, with energy committee co-chairs Sen. John Fonfara and Rep. Vickie Nardello at right. (Mark Pazniokas)

“I thought it was a very good conversation,” said John Erlingheuser of AARP, one of the advocates who met with Rell’s legal staff. “They are examining it. They are keeping an open mind about it.”

A spokesman for Rell said the bill, which might not reach Rell’s desk for several weeks, is undergoing a detailed review. The spokesman, Adam Liegeot, also described the governor as undecided.

Rell is being bombarded with messages so contradictory they seem to describe different bills.

Opponents warn of higher electric rates, less competition and job losses, while proponents promise cheaper electricity, more competition and new jobs.

John R. Rathgeber, the president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, told Rell by letter this week that his 10,000 member companies do not believe the state can afford the energy bill.

He said that the legislation could cost ratepayers $62 million to $268 million annually, is anti-competitive and would increase the cost and scope of government.

“The energy industry is a complex, multi-billion dollar industry. Connecticut should not make major policy changes without proper due diligence or insight into the actual ramifications,” Rathgeber wrote.

On Wednesday, legislative leaders gathered with environmentalists, consumer advocates and representatives of industries that would see growth under the bill to urge the governor’s signature.

“I think that the message I’d like to send to her is that Connecticut is not happy with the status quo,” said Rep. Vickie O. Nardello, D-Prospect, the co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Energy press conference

Donovan urges Rell to sign bill. (Pazniokas)

Nardello and her co-chair, Sen. John W. Fonfara, D-Hartford, ended a three-year standoff over different approaches to energy regulation and collaborated on an ambitious bill that dominated the last days of the session.

Leaders said Wednesday that they had to act, passing the energy bill, 81 to 40 in the House and 20 to 14 in the Senate.

“The fact is that our rates are 10 to 14 percent higher than other New England states — 10 to 14 percent. That is not acceptable, not to the ratepayers, whether they be businesses or residences,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden.

Nardello said the bill requires a revamped Public Utilities Control Authority to aggressively study the “best practices” of other states with an eye toward cutting rates by 15 percent over the next two years.

Fonfara said a 15 percent reduction could save a typical residential customer $19.50 a month.

“We’re not happy being the highest electric costs in the country. We can’t find that acceptable, and that we in Connecticut want to control our own destiny,” Nardello said. “That’s what this bill is all about.”

The utilities have said emulating other states’ best practices is no guarantee of a rate reduction, whether the goal is set in law or not.

Some legislators made an appeal to Rell’s sense of history as her last term winds down.

“She cares about the environment,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Cheshire. “This is a chance for her to make a bold statement.”

A coalition of energy retailers urged a veto of the bill, saying that consumer protections are onerous.  Retailers would have to provide a written contract and no longer could sign up customers in a telephone transaction.

Erlingheuser said the goal was to force companies to offer consumers a way to accurately compare rates and terms.

The bill also is opposed by the Consumer Electronics Association, which says that the market for televisions and other electronic products is too dynamic to be regulated by a state law.

The energy bill would force inefficient models from store shelves.

“Voluntary, consumer-oriented programs such as Energy Star are working successfully already and have resulted in significant energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions,” the association said.