Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday he intends to use the powers granted in a bill headed to his desk to extend Marissa P. Gillett’s tenure as chair of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, a first step towards addressing policy disputes among the authority’s three commissioners.
With a state budget adopted and the legislative session about to end, the governor indicated he would be addressing the makeup of PURA, where a more adversarial approach to utility oversight by Gillett has put her at odds with two long-serving colleagues, John W. Betkoski III and Michael A. Caron.
Industry stock analysts have noted the “friction” and speculated whether Gillett is in Connecticut for the long haul. Gillett said Tuesday she would welcome an extension of her tenure as chair.
Lamont said he intends to sign Senate Bill 7, a measure that won final passage Monday. It reinforces the state’s commitment toward shifting to setting rates based on performance, not cost of service. And it gives Lamont the power to designate the chair of PURA for the next two years, beginning June 30.
Currently, the chair is chosen by a vote of the authority members.
“I think Marissa has been incredibly smart, and she analyzes where we are on our ratemaking,” Lamont said. “She’s the best person, I think, to take the lead in terms of performance-based regulation.”
Lamont, a Democrat who has sole control over appointments to PURA, has multiple options if he wishes to build a new team around Gillett, a 36-year-old regulatory lawyer the Lamont administration recruited from Maryland four years ago.
The terms of Betkoski and Caron have expired, and Lamont can replace one or both at his discretion. State law also allows the governor to expand PURA from three to five commissioners — an option Lamont long has refused to exercise but now says he is seriously considering.
Lamont had deemed the two additional seats to be unnecessary, but more recently he told lawmakers not to eliminate them in Senate Bill 7, keeping his options open.
“I may take a good hard look at maybe expanding that board,” Lamont said. “We already have the authorization for the legislature to do it, find some other skill sets you maybe need to fill in the blanks and make sure I have a board that really works together, collaboratively and by majority.”
For months, the governor had declined to show a preference among Gillett, Betkoski and Caron, speaking well of all three and suggesting they still could work together. His comments Tuesday were the strongest statements to date endorsing Gillett and the need for new commissioners, whether as successors to Betkoski or Caron or occupying the unfilled positions.
But he still hedged, offering praise of Betkoski and Caron.
“I like her other two compatriots there on the PURA board,” Lamont said. “I don’t know what their appetite is to continue, and I will certainly ask them.”
The Democratic co-chairs of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg of Westport and Sen. Norm Needleman of Essex, said they were encouraged by the governor’s remarks. Both are supporters of Gillett, and they once considered setting term limits that could have forced Betkoski and Caron off PURA.
“She’s a unicorn. We’re very lucky to have her,” Steinberg said. “She really is looking out for ratepayer interests in our state. She brings the right mix to what we need in Connecticut right now.”
Needleman said the governor has his support if chooses to expand PURA to five members.
“I support whatever efforts the governor undertakes to make sure that this board functions with 3, 4, 5 full-time working members who dedicate the time and effort that the chair has dedicated for the last four years to make sure that the regulatory environment in the state of Connecticut works for the benefit of the ratepayers,” Needleman said.
Turnover has been significant at PURA since Gillett’s arrival, and she has taken control over every significant docket. Needleman said he was not bothered by the turnover, some of which he attributed to a welcome change of culture being forced by Gillett.
Gillett stunned the regulated industry with a decision in March that not only rejected a rate increase sought by Aquarion Water Company but actually cut rates. A Superior Court judge has stayed the rate cut while Aquarion, a subsidiary of Eversource, pursues an appeal that has taken on a personal tone towards Gillett.
Aquarion’s lawyers accused Gillett, who has objected to PURA’s habit of settling with utilities rather than pursuing full-fledged rate cases, of making “an example” of the company to validate her approach.
Attached to their request for a stay were transcripts of the meeting where the rate request was rejected, plus an interview Gillett gave to NBC Connecticut, and critiques by stock analysts who warned of threats to the utility’s ability to borrow.
Needleman called the attacks “abhorrent.”