To energize a campaign, talk about electric rates

NEW BRITAIN – The Democratic gubernatorial campaigns of Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont surprised no one last week with their race to criticize Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s veto of an energy reform bill.

Packed into one failed bill were enough talking points to fuel two campaigns: high electric rates, clean energy and every candidate’s favorite issue in 2010 – how to create jobs.

“You can’t separate energy from jobs,” Malloy said Wednesday, standing outside the Department of Public Utility Control. “We don’t have a bigger problem in our state than the loss of jobs and the failure to create jobs. And there is not a bigger single factor in the creation of jobs in my opinion than energy costs.”

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Dan Malloy outside DPUC headquarters in New Britain (Mark Pazniokas)

With his press conference outside the DPUC’s headquarters in New Britain, Malloy appealed to important elements of the Democratic base, the environmental and consumer groups that mobilized around the energy bill in face of intense industry opposition.

“This is a great issue for a Democratic candidate for governor,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group, a backer of the vetoed bill.  “Connecticut has the highest utility rates or energy costs of any of the 48 continental states. Only Hawaii beats us.”

Swan managed Lamont’s U.S. Senate race in 2006, but his group is neutral in the governor’s race.

With Malloy and Lamont each favoring the sweeping Democratic bill passed on the last day of the legislature’s 2010 session, fully exploiting the issue in the primary likely will require one candidate to convince voters that he has ability to alter the unhappy experiment that has been electric deregulation in Connecticut.

“He’s got to sell the notion he’s going to act on this,” said Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, who stood Wednesday with Malloy. “You’ve got to have the leadership issue addressed. You’ve got to translate this into something meaningful. It’s jobs and lower rates.”

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a backer of Lamont and the energy bill, said the issue might be of limited value in the primary.

“In a Democratic primary, they’ll all be saying the same thing: They are for it,” Donovan said.

Donovan and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, another Lamont supporter, both thought the bill an important election-year effort, even if Rell was likely to veto it.

“It’s good policy, and oftentimes good policy is good politics as well,” Williams said.

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

Swan called the issue smart politics in the primary or general election.

“If one is able to define themselves as the candidate who is trying to protect ratepayers and build a green-energy infrastructure, it will be beneficial in a primary, but also in a general election,” Swan said.

Malloy faulted Rell for failing to take control of the issue. One reason she gave for her veto was the failure of Democratic legislators to engage her administration on energy until the last week of the session.

“What we’re talking about is taking a very different approach. The DPUC is not the enemy. Utilities are not the enemy, although I don’t frequently agree with them,” Malloy said. “The enemy is us.”

Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford and the convention-endorsed candidate, said blame for the failure to adopt a coherent energy policy lies with the political establishment, not regulators or the utilities.

“Let us understand that we’re going to have a governor who is willing to take on this issue and be measured by it, by actual standards,” said Malloy, who promises to reduce overall energy consumption by 15 percent.

Justine Sessions, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said that her candidate made the link between energy policy and jobs in an economic plan posted on his campaign web site in April:

“Connecticut has the highest energy costs in the continental U.S., a crushing burden on our businesses and families. We can’t hope to keep and attract high-paying manufacturing jobs if our companies are forced to pay sky-high electric rates. Energy costs are one of the biggest expenses in manufacturing, not to mention other industries.”

Lamont promised to use “federal and state dollars to create an army of energy entrepreneurs to weatherize our homes and businesses-sealing windows, replacing insulation, ensuring our dollars don’t leak out. We can lower families’ electric bills and put hundreds of unemployed young people to work in just a few months if we move fast.”

Chris Healy, the Republican state chairman, said he agrees that energy policy will be a great issue for the general election, but not for the reasons that the Democrats think.

He said that Democrats, and some Republicans, have refused to encourage new generating capacity and transmission lines, the only sure way to lower rates.

“They talk a big game. To the Democrats, electricity comes out of the wall. That’s how they think. It comes out of the wall. It’s magic. Let’s tax it,” Healy said. “I think on this issue they have a really hard slog.”