AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill Tuesday that could require utility shareholders to bear the costs of audits similar to the ongoing review into massive, unexplained price spikes reported by some Central Maine Power customers.

The CMP audit bill was among 13 vetoed by LePage on Tuesday, one day after he vetoed 23 other bills.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission is working with a third-party auditor to determine what caused some CMP customers to see their monthly bills double and sometimes triple last winter. Lawmakers upset that ratepayers will have to pay the costs of that management audit – even if it points to CMP as being at fault – introduced a bill that would give the commission the option of requiring the utility to foot the bill for the months-long investigation.

On Tuesday, LePage accused lawmakers of “unfairly and callously appropriating a process they know is underway in the misguided attempt to look good in an election year.”

“While the language of the bill does not specifically single out CMP, the intent to single out CMP is clear, and was clear during committee hearings,” LePage wrote in his veto letter of L.D. 1729. “I find a law that intends to single out a specific company unfair and unconstitutional. Introducing a bill to create a fine for an action after the fact, ex post facto, is unfair as well.”

AUDIT BY OUTSIDE CONTRACTOR

An internal CMP audit released in April said the company had found no problems with the company’s systems that would explain the unusually high electricity bills reported by customers following a cold snap late last December and early January. At the time, CMP had reviewed only about 25 percent of the more than 1,500 complaints it had received about excessively high bills last winter. The PUC, meanwhile, launched its own investigation into the billing problem as well as the forensic or “management audit” of billing and meter operations that will be conducted by an outside contractor, Liberty Consulting Group.

The surge in bills coincided with last winter’s cold snap but also a changeover to a new billing system at CMP. Some CMP customers who experienced price spikes were not convinced by initial explanations that CMP’s changeover to a new billing system, the early winter cold spell and an 18 percent hike in standard-offer electric rates in January combined to cause the spike.

The independent audit will look at, among other things, whether the utility’s Wi-Fi “smart meters” were accurately recording and reporting electricity usage as well as whether resulting bills reflected actual usage.

The Public Advocate’s Office, which represents ratepayers in proceedings before the PUC, said in a recent letter to the commission that it has received “numerous complaints regarding the fact that ratepayers must pay for the audit.”

“We help such callers understand that this is a statutory requirement over which the commission lacks control,” Public Advocate Barry Hobbins wrote in the letter asking the commission to hold periodic updates with the contractor as well as the public advocate on the audit. “Nevertheless, allowing our participation in the requested periodic reviews will help allay customer concerns about the cost.”

OTHER MEASURES TARGETED BY LEPAGE

Among the other bills the governor vetoed Tuesday were:

• Legislation to offer firearms training and weapons to Maine Forest Rangers.

• A bill to require insurance companies to cover the costs of hearing aids for all Mainers, not just those under age 18 as is currently required.

• A measure to allow up to two private entities to operate an online service for residents to obtain fire burn permits.

• A bill creating a pilot project within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to provide housing and opioid treatment to up to 50 people who were homeless. That bill, which allocated a little more than $2 million toward the project, received strong support during the committee process from law enforcement officials as well as Portland-area agencies that work with the homeless.

In his veto letter on L.D. 1711 to create a Homeless Opioid Users Service Engagement Pilot Project, LePage said the state is already taking steps and spending money to combat the opioid crisis.

“This bill was clearly intended to be administered by one specific provider,” LePage wrote. “I cannot support spending an enormous amount of money through a provider that was handpicked by the Legislature on unproven methods for just 25 people. We need to focus our resources on quality treatment and fight this epidemic using proven methods of success with the capacity to reach large numbers of those in need of assistance all across the state.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat who has frequently accused the LePage administration of not doing enough to address the opioid addiction crisis, shot back by questioning why the governor would “exercise his veto authority in such a heartless way.”

“These are people who struggle every day to meet their most basic needs of food and shelter, and simply offering traditional treatment in traditional settings is an inadequate approach to helping them manage and maintain recovery,” Gattine said in a statement. “We need to meet them where they are to have a chance to really help them. To do anything less is a death sentence. I hope the Legislature is able to override this senseless veto.”

The Legislature is expected to return on July 9 to vote on whether to uphold or override the governor’s vetoes. It takes two-thirds majorities in both chambers to overturn a veto.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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