Rell vetoes energy bill, citing content and process

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has vetoed sweeping energy legislation passed on the final day of the 2010 session after a late-night debate, attacking the path the bill followed to passage as vehemently as she did the measure’s content.

Rell, whose administration was not consulted on the bill as it was drafted, called the process “disrespectful to those who honestly desired to read and deliberate the bill’s provisions and unfair to the people of Connecticut whose electric bills and taxes would surely be affected.”

The bill’s Democratic sponsors, Sen. John Fonfara of Hartford and Rep. Vicki O. Nardello of Prospect, presented the bill to colleagues in the session’s final week, setting off a massive lobbying effort. Utilities tried to kill it, while environmentalists and consumer programs pushed for passage.

The bill would have subsidized solar power, encouraged energy efficiency and exerted influence over a deregulated electric industry that has given Connecticut the nation’s second-highest electric rates.

The most heavily lobbied bill of year was passed 20 to 14 in the Senate and 81 to 40 in the House. An override is not likely, as passage fell four votes short in the Senate and 20 in the House of the necessary two-thirds.

But the numbers aren’t deterring Fonfara, who said he plans to heavily lobby lawmakers to switch their votes.

“We have not talked to them yet, but we certainly will at this point. We’ll see where that takes us. … There is still the opportunity to overcome a veto,” he said.

Rell said she could not overcome her dismay with what she called the lack of transparency.

“I believe in the legislative process. As disjointed as the legislative process can sometimes appear, public comment and open analysis and debate are critical to producing well-crafted, workable laws,”Rell said. “The proponents of this bill would have been well served by following that process.”

Rell’s comments angered Fonfara, calling them “totally untrue and inaccurate. It’s misleading for the governor to say that. Every portion of this bill has had a public hearing.”

Nardello said the governor’s Office of Policy and Management responded to the handful of bills that were eventually rolled into this omnibus energy bill.

“If she didn’t really like the bill she should have just said so,” she said. “This bill was brought forth like any other bill.”

Rell also took issue with the House taking up the bill at 3 a.m. on the last day, giving final passage at 6 a.m. House leaders said they had no choice, noting that Republicans had filibustered an education-reform bill for 7 hours, pushing the energy bill debate into the early morning hours.

“Tired legislators debating a bill as complex and important as this under cloak of night is untenable and unacceptable,” Rell said.

Rell dismissed claims from the bill’s supporters that it would lower rates. She said it was rhetoric and “eerily reminiscent” of claims by supporters of deregulation in 1998.

Charles Rothenberger, an attorney with Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said Rell’s claims that the process was not transparent are unfounded.

“It did have the full benefit of legislative public hearings,” he said. “Unfortunately, opponents of the bill were able to get ahead on that message. … We pay the highest rates in the continental U.S. and this [veto] ensures we will continue down that path.”

The veto quickly became an issue in the gubernatorial campaign. The endorsed Democratic candidate, Dan Malloy, quickly criticized the actions of Rell, who is not seeking re-election.

“This is a mistake, plain and simple. At a time when Connecticut is already facing the highest electricity costs in the country, when families and small businesses across the state are already strained by unprecedented economic problems, this veto makes no sense,” Malloy said.

“This was more than an energy bill, it was a jobs bill,” said Ned Lamont, the Democratic challenger. “The governor’s decision to veto it was shortsighted, and it comes shortly after her gimmick-laden budget raided the Connecticut energy conservation fund.”

Christopher Phelps, program director for Environment Connecticut, a clean energy advocacy group, called the governor’s veto “extremely disappointing, for the ratepayers and businesses, for those who want to create clean energy and green jobs. The bill was specifically crafted to set a positive balance” between controlling rates, promoting renewable energy sources and protecting the environment, he added.

Rell said that the bill was well-intentioned, but it attempted to do too much with too little oversight and public input.

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. I cannot approve the sweeping changes in this bill without fully knowing the effect they will have on the energy market, our state’s economy and ratepayer bills,” Rell said. “Further, by creating a new state agency, the Connecticut Energy and Technology Authority, this bill increases the size and scope of state government at a time when we are striving to cut expenses and streamline government.”

The bill also would have reorganized and renamed the Public Utilities Control Authority as the Connecticut Energy and Technology Authority, which would have the added responsibility of promoting new technologies and renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

The bill also would have adopted Energy Star standards for all televisions sold in the state, forcing energy-gobbling models from the market. And it called for low-interest financing for homeowners to invest in energy-efficient boilers and other improvements.

Nardello said if lawmakers decide not to override the governor’s veto this year, there’s alway next year.

“We’ve already done all the work,” she said.