Leader to address ‘dysfunction’ on energy committee

At least four major components of the omnibus energy bill that never made it to the floor of either chamber of the General Assembly in the just-completed annual legislative session are likely to make their way into the special session in two weeks.

While the move is expected to rectify some key issues — in particular, the extension of funding to provide low-cost energy audits for oil-heated homes — many view it as mop-up for a failure that could have been avoided.

Nardello Fonfara

Nardello and Fonfara consulting in 2010 during a thaw in their relationship.

The situation speaks to what legislators and lobbyists characterize as dysfunction in the Energy and Technology Committee and ongoing tension between Democratic co-chairs, Sen. John W. Fonfara of Hartford and Rep. Vickie O. Nardello of Prospect.

The 11th hour failure of the energy bill is prompting an unusual public recognition of a problem that for years was the subject of private griping and gossip at the State Capitol.

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who is expected to become House speaker in January, said energy is the only committee whose operations he intends to review with Senate leadership before the 2013 session.

“I think we need to change the dynamic of the committee, so that there is not that dysfunction,” Sharkey said.

Exactly what that means is unclear. Sharkey said it is too early to talk about whether one or both committee co-chairs need to be replaced.

Fonfara is among those who say something needs to happen.

“I feel that continuing in the manner that we have is not likely to result in us passing the kind of legislation I believe we can,” said Fonfara, who has co-chaired the committee on and off since the 1990s and with Nardello since 2009.

At the close of the final night of the session, Fonfara said he sat alone in his office for an hour.

“In my now 26 years I was never more frustrated, never more angry, never more disappointed that very, very important legislation was left to die,” he said. “It was a very painful experience.”

Many involved in the negotiation of the legislation’s details blamed Nardello, saying the cause was her unwillingness to bring the legislation to the floor. She was dissatisfied with provisions that clarified the relationship between the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and its parent agency, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

But Nardello called that “without a doubt an unfair characterization.”

She pointed to Fonfara’s penchant for running large energy bills loaded with often disparate provisions, and delivering them late in the session — a practice noted as a contributing factor by several people, including the House majority leader.

“I don’t believe it is good public policy to do 120-page bills on the last day of the session,” she said. “It’s inevitable mistakes will be made.

“I would prefer not to do a big bill. If I agree to one, I like to be finished much earlier,” Nardello said, explaining she wants time to make sure the language accurately reflects the bill’s intent, and to have it reviewed by outside experts.

Fonfara defended his use of large bills as a way to get many items through, given the limited session schedule. “I don’t think the size of a bill is an issue,” he said.

Both said their relationship has had its successes, pointing to major legislation that was passed in 2010 and vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, as well as the nearly 300-page legislation in 2011 that created DEEP and dozens of programs to go with it, and the passage of storm response legislation this year.

“I think that that has been certainly overblown over the years,” Nardello said of the personal conflict. “I think it’s more that John and I have very different styles.”

Fonfara called it different philosophies saying he was more free-market oriented while Nardello favored stronger regulation – something she did not dispute. “I have always felt the responsibility to look out for the individual ratepayer whether it’s a home owner, small business, seniors,” she said. “I do take a very strong consumer perspective because I feel they have been the very least represented in the capital.”

Nardello, Fonfara and others familiar with the energy committee and its issues say the legislature’s routines and resources also make passing complex energy legislation a challenge.

The time allotted to the committee for public hearings is seen as insufficient for the extremely complex and technical bills the committee produces; staffing to research and write legislation that requires specialized expertise is inadequate; and the committee is inundated by lobbyists, which slows the process.

Nearly all, regardless of whether they aligned themselves with Fonfara or Nardello, characterized the committee and its work as the most heavily lobbied in the legislature.

For the special session, in addition to the energy audit funding (the current pot of money is due to dry up this summer), leftovers from the energy bill are likely to include granting bonding authority and other financial mechanisms to the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority so it can better leverage private capital for its so-called green bank function.

Another is a clean energy program, known as C-PACE, that will allow certain commercial properties to borrow funds for energy efficiency measures or clean energy projects that would be paid back through property tax bills.

And another measure — likely to be in a Senate jobs bill that is to be resurrected in the special session after dying on the House calendar as the regular session ended — is a ramped-up boiler replacement program, one of Fonfara’s pet projects.

“These were very important components. Frankly it’s very disappointing that these did not come through,” said DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty, who said he had heard about what he called “these personality issues,” before becoming commissioner, but was happy with the collaboration in 2011. “I’m hoping we can get back to that spirit of collaboration.”

That said, many simply characterized this year’s inaction as a new low.

“We are now nostalgic for the good old days when the omnibus energy bill came out two days before the end of the session rather than seven hours,” said Martin Mador, legislative and political chairman for the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club. “When you put all the energy stuff in one place so you either get nothing or shoot the moon, is not the way you do this. I think this is a real gamble and perhaps not the optimal way to get important legislation through.”

Roger Smith of Clean Water Action, who has been advocating for the home energy audit financing as a critical job-creation and energy efficiency measure that effects half the homes in the state, said the committee’s difficulties and the lack of successful legislation has been the status quo.

“Passing energy legislation is more the exception,” he said citing only 2005, 2007 and 2011 as years with major passed legislation. “It’s kind of like leap year; I don’t expect them to come about all the time.”

For Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, vice-chair of the committee, the situation is at once clear and murky. “We cannot have a repeat  of this year,” she said. “We need a more organized approach with a couple of energy goals that everybody agrees to and then stick to that plan.

“We need to do a forensic look at what happened last year, where we are and where we need to go,” she said, noting the frustration. “This was a watershed session for that – including the chairs. I think everybody felt under siege and it was one of those Kafkaesque things: who is the enemy?”

The truth is Reed, who said she has been candid with Nardello about her desire to be committee co-chair one day, stands to benefit from changes that could make committee look substantially different next year.

Nardello said she has met with Sharkey, who has the votes to succeed the departing Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden as speaker, and stated her preference: “To stay as energy chair.”

On the Senate side, Fonfara also serves as vice chair on the powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, whose chair is retiring. He denies having lobbied for the position.

“I’ll leave that one to my leadership to make the appropriate decision,” he said. “An opportunity such as that, which doesn’t come along often, if my leadership felt I was qualified I would seriously look at it.

“If it’s energy, I’ll continue to work hard. I don’t envision a repeat of this year.”

Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.