Solar power critic says he does not want to be LePage’s new utilities regulator

Good morning from Augusta, which will soon be the scene of palace intrigue around what Gov. Paul LePage says will be a new nominee to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

However, you can rule out one person: Jim LaBrecque, a self-taught electrical engineer, heat pump evangelist and alternative energy critic from Bangor who LePage floated yesterday on WVOM as a potential pick for the commission. LaBrecque told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday that he and the governor haven’t discussed an appointment.

The Republican governor is still fuming over utility regulators’ decision in late January to roll back and not eliminate “net metering,” the solar energy policy that allows people with panels to claim credits for energy sent to the grid.  

All three commissioners were nominated by LePage, but in his State of the State speech last week, he said he’d fire them if he had the authority. On Friday, he urged them to resign.

And on Tuesday, he said he was “looking for a new PUC commissioner” to replace Carlisle McLean, his former chief lawyer who was appointed in 2015 but whose term is up in March — the only commissioner whose term will end before LePage leaves office in January 2019.

That’s when he floated LaBrecque’s name as potential replacement that he’s considering, though LePage noted that he’d “difficulty getting confirmed.”

But LaBrecque said he didn’t want the job, citing his businesses and a special-needs son. He said he and LePage also haven’t talked about such a job, although he said he plans to join LePage’s office as a staff adviser later in the year so he can speak more formally on behalf of the administration.

“I think he’s like myself,” LaBrecque said of LePage’s remark. “We’re just pronto, right off the cuff and I’m sure if he had to think about what he said and make a formal statement, he would have said something different.”

LaBrecque said serving as a utilities regulator wouldn’t fit his “technical expertise” and agreed with LePage that confirmation would be difficult, saying “armies of people” would be “trying to do me in because I’m not supporting their stuff.” He also said enjoyed his informal role advising LePage.

“I can speak the way I want to speak and talk frankly to the facts because nobody can fire me,” he said. “They can’t call my mother; she’s dead. They can’t call my boss; that’s me.”

Democrats say LePage is “180 degrees wrong” about solar and wrong to attack the PUC. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s energy committee, said many lawmakers and the majority of Mainers understand that the spread of solar-generated energy is good for both the economy and the environment.

“What independent studies have shown is that solar is actually contributing not only to job creation in Maine but also to keep energy prices down overall,” he said Tuesday. “If anything, the subsidy is being provided by solar owners to others. … If we’re going to talk about subsidy, let’s talk about how we would be subsidizing Canadian hydro. Let’s talk about how we have subsidized biomass and really open up the conversation to a level playing field.”

Berry had no comment about the prospect of LaBrecque being nominated to the PUC. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The battle over Canada’s trade rules continues. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have sent a letter to acting U.S. Trade Representative Maria Pagan to protest what they call unfair trade subsidies that could harm Dragon Products Co. in Thomaston, which makes cement. The delegation has called for a probe of possible Canadian subsidies to a new $1.1 billion McInnis Cement plant in Quebec, which is scheduled to be operational in the next six months or so.
  • Eliminating lead from drinking water. In the wake of the municipal drinking water disaster in Michigan, lawmakers and others in Maine are spearheading an effort to find and eliminate lead in drinking water at public schools. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who has sponsored a bill on this subject, and others will host a press conference today at 11:30 a.m. at the State House to present a new analysis that grades Maine’s efforts protecting kids from toxic water.
  • Susan Collins is under more pressure on another Trump nominee. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has demonstrated her willingness to vote against her party when it comes to some of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, which is only amping up the pressure on her regarding others. A new ad launches today calling on Collins to reject labor secretary nominee Andy Puzder, whose confirmations hearings are scheduled to begin Thursday. Collins has said she is undecided about Puzder and concerned about an Oprah Winfrey Show interview with Puzder’s alleged ex-wife, who discussed how he physically assaulted her in the 1980s. The woman later retracted the allegations.
  • LePage’s town hall in Yarmouth tonight has been postponed. It’s due to our next impending winter storm and the meeting will be rescheduled, the governor’s office says.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate are scheduled to reconvene on Thursday. Here’s the full docket of committee work on today’s schedule, but we’ve pulled out some highlights. The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will take up two bills aimed at adding new requirements for voting. LD 121 would require a photo ID to vote and LD 155 would require a municipal registrar of voters to verify Maine residency for voters who live on the campus of a postsecondary educational institution. The ACLU of Maine and a coalition of other organizations have vowed to oppose the bills. Legislative staff have booked an overflow room for spectators for the hearings, which kick off around 9 a.m.

Over in the State and Local Government committee, a bill to more than double the salary of Maine’s governor, LD 69, will be the subject of a public hearing. The raise from $70,000 a year, which is the lowest salary of any governor in the country, to $150,000 would take effect in January 2019 with the next elected governor. The committee is also hearing public comments today on LD 203, which would stop daylight savings time in Maine and put us in the Atlantic time zone. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

From Lego movie producer to treasury secretary

You’ve seen a lot of Steve Mnuchin’s name in the news but if you watch closely at the end of the new “Lego Batman Movie,” BAM! you’ll see his name listed as executive producer. I didn’t know this but WHAMMO! Mnuchin has also been a producer on another 34 films in recent years.

Mnuchin, who won confirmation Monday to be President Donald Trump’s treasury secretary, is also a producer for “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” which debuts this fall. Unless SMASH! an economic rends him to pieces. Like a pile of Legos.

As you can see, my Batman prowess is mired crisis in the television show from decades ago, not the movie playing in theaters today. Sometimes the old way is the best way, which is the case with today’s bonus soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.