AUGUSTA — Democrats stalled action on Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee for the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday after raising concerns about the objectivity of his two previous appointees.

In the unexpected vote, Democrats on the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee tabled the nomination of Tennessee economist Bruce Williamson to fill the third seat on the commission.

Several Republicans accused them of politicizing the nomination process.

The 7-6 party-line vote came after roughly two hours of testimony by Williamson and questions from the committee that centered on energy policy, natural gas pipeline capacity and broadband expansion. Williamson is the senior economist at the Institute for Nuclear Security at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.

But early in the process, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee’s co-chair, said “a crisis of confidence” surrounds the PUC, which regulates water, electricity, gas and telephone utilities in the state. Some lawmakers and state residents have questioned the impartiality of the governor’s past appointments to the commission, Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean, and believe it has lost its objectivity and integrity.

Underscoring that perception is a request from Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, a member of the energy committee, filed Thursday under the Freedom of Access Act, for copies of all email correspondence between PUC commissioners and staff and LePage and some members of his staff, including energy adviser Patrick Woodcock. The request is for the period from Jan. 29 through May 28 and covers PUC calendar and phone records.

“My intent for this request is to clarify the role of the PUC and its influencers during this recent spate of decisions,” Hill said in the request. “The PUC is intended to operate as an independent regulatory agency but there’s indication that perhaps some coordination and collaboration has occurred between the Executive Branch and the PUC leading to undue influence.”

LePage previously nominated Vannoy, an engineer and former Navy officer who now serves as chairman, and McLean, the governor’s former chief legal counsel. Hill’s public records request also asks for McLean’s email, calendar and phone records with the PUC from Dec. 1, 2014, through Jan. 28, while she was legal counsel.

Environmental activists and some Democratic allies in the Legislature say recent positions taken by McLean and Vannoy suggest they may be following the governor’s lead on subsidies for renewable energy and efficiency programs. LePage believes those subsidies are increasing electricity rates and discouraging businesses from expanding in Maine. He favors policies that encourage expansion of natural gas pipelines.

The PUC set off a political firestorm this spring when Vannoy and McLean voted on a rule-making procedure for Efficiency Maine, based in part on a one-word typo in a complex energy bill. The vote had the effect of cutting $38 million for energy-efficiency programs and ignoring the Legislature’s intent to provide the funding.

The two commissioners declined to reconsider an appeal by environmental groups, and lawmakers are now debating how to fix the bill. Ultimately, the matter could end up in court.

After impromptu, closed-door meetings Thursday afternoon by both Republicans and Democrats, Dion said his members wanted more time to consider Williamson’s testimony before voting on the nomination. By law, a vote must take place by June 8.

Dion noted that the PUC term is for six years and that holds significant responsibility. He also indicated that some members regretted that they had moved too quickly to approve McLean’s nomination.

But one Republican on the committee rejected that assertion and said the vote on Williamson’s nomination should proceed.

“It’s dirty, rotten, nasty politics, and for what?” said Rep. Larry Dunfy, R-Embden.

The drama in the committee room brought legislative leaders around to assess what was happening.

“There’s no need to delay, this is politics at its worst,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

Fredette pointed out that Williamson’s resume had been circulating for weeks and that he had come to Maine to meet with some members of the committee, as well as business leaders and other interest groups. The nominee has no connections to LePage and no political ambitions, Fredette said.

“I think this is the ultimate politicalization of the PUC, not by Republicans, but by Democrats,” Fredette said.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said LePage is urging lawmakers to “take swift action” in confirming Williamson and “he is clearly qualified” for the PUC post.

The session seemed to have started well for Williamson, who talked about his background as an economist, experience at telecommunications firms and passion for energy issues. He spoke about his unease with using subsidies and incentives to drive policy, especially subsidies that don’t have a set end point and wind up costing ratepayers indefinitely.

Responding to questions from Dion and Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, about ideology and ethics, Williamson said he is not a crusader, but an analytical thinker influenced by data and research.

It wasn’t clear late Thursday when a vote would be scheduled. If Williamson ultimately is endorsed by the committee, he must then be confirmed by the full Senate.

Stephen M. Mistler contributed to this report.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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