LePage eyes replacing utilities commissioner with solar energy critic

Good morning from Augusta, where we emerged from the year’s biggest storm to Gov. Paul LePage saying he’s looking to replace his former lawyer on the state commission that regulates utilities and calling on an Orono legislator to resign.

There’s no rest for Maine’s press. Here’s your soundtrack.

That first item is a continuation of the Republican governor’s crusade against the Maine Public Utilities Commission after their late January decision to roll back — and not repeal — a solar energy policy that allows panel owners to be credited for energy sold back to the grid.

In his State of the State speech last week, LePage said he’d fire them if he had that power. On Friday, he urged them to resign.  On Tuesday, the governor doubled down and said he’s “looking for a new PUC commissioner” to replace Carlisle McLean, whose term ends in March.

LePage appointed every commission member. But McLean is most closely tied to LePage, serving before her 2015 appointment as his chief lawyer and natural resources policy adviser before there. But whatever loyalty LePage had to the commission seems to have broken down over the decision, saying they “caved to the special interests.”

That’s a pretty stunning thing to say, because environmentalists and small solar companies hated the ruling for how far it went. Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables of Pittsfield, told the Bangor Daily News on Friday the decision “some of the most anti-solar stances in the entire country.”

The governor also said he’s considering nominating James LaBrecque to the commission. The electrical engineer and owner of Flexware Control Technology in Bangor has long been in LePage’s orbit as a volunteer adviser and evangelist for heat pumps and against wind and solar energy that he deems too costly.

However, LePage acknowledged that LaBrecque could be controversial, saying he’d have “difficulty getting confirmed” by the Legislature’s energy committee and the Maine Senate. Watch us for more on this topic in the coming days.

And LePage also called on state Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s tax committee, to resign after the Maine Republican Party issued a press release on Tuesday dinging him for a “major conflict of interest.”

The party said he should be removed from his committee post after being paid $9,000 to work on the campaign that pushed for the passage of Question 2 on 2016’s statewide ballot, which placed a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education.

Tipping couldn’t be reached for comment, but legislators working on ballot question campaigns isn’t uncommon. For example, Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, is one of the state’s best-known referendum signature-gatherers.

But LePage went further, saying Tipping should resign and calling his move “the utmost corruption.”

“Shame on him,” he said. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

Legislative committees are scheduled to meet this afternoon for public hearings and work sessions, though the schedule may be altered because of yesterday’s snow day. You can see the full list by clicking here but here are a few highlights:

  • The Insurance and Financial Services Committee is taking comments on An Act to Establish a State Bank, which would help capitalize large economic ventures.
  • The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will discuss a bill that would bar the use of smart meters on consumer’s homes by electric utility companies.
  • The Transportation Committee is considering two bills that would make changes to Maine’s motor vehicle inspection laws.
  • The Judiciary Committee has public hearings and work sessions scheduled for two bills that have to do with landowner liability when they allow recreational use of their land.
  • The House and Senate have relatively busy days but it’s mostly advancing bills through the early stages of the legislative process, according to their advance calendars. The Senate will vote on several gubernatorial appointments to boards and commissions which were unanimously supported at the committee level. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Collins in familiar spot: Maine Sen. Susan Collins is one of four Republican senators who supposedly have not made up their minds on whether to vote to confirm Andrew Puzder, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. labor secretary. With Puzder set to answer questions from senators on Thursday, Collins is the subject of intense lobbying from detractors and supporters, including the Maine Restaurant Association. That’s not surprising. Since 2000, Puzder has been CEO of CKE Restaurants, which operates the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains.
  • Another Trump nominee confirmed: In a rare unanimous vote on a Trump nominee, the Senate on Monday voted to confirm David Shulkin to head the Veterans Administration. Shulkin has spoken out against Trump’s suggestion that a private firm would do a better job of running the agency that provides medical care and other services to U.S. military veterans. Collins and Sen. Angus King were effusive in their praise for Shulkin, who last year visited Maine as VA under secretary to assess conditions at the Togus VA center and work to reduce wait times for veterans who live in rural parts of the state.
  • State of the Judiciary scheduled: Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley will deliver the annual State of the Judiciary speech at 11 a.m. on Thursday in the House chamber. — Robert Long

Reading list

Say it ain’t snow

With a foot or two of fresh snow on the ground and another big storm headed our way for Wednesday into Thursday, it’s understandable if you’re a little grumpy. To cheer you up, the Daily Brief has compiled some of the very best (that we could find in five minutes) snow jokes out there:

Q: What do you get from sitting on the snow too long:

A: Polaroids!

Q: What do you call 10 arctic hares hopping backwards through the snow together?

A: A receding hare line.

Q: What do snowmen call their offspring?

A: Chill-dren.

Q:. Where does a snowman keep his money?

A: In a snow bank.

Q: What is it called when a snowman has a temper tantrum

A: A meltdown

Q: Where do ice fishermen send their kids during vacation?

A: Smelt camp

OK, we admit that those jokes may be lacking something. If you can do better, email your snow joke to politics@bangordailynews.com and we’ll consider them for a future Daily Brief. — Christopher Cousins

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.