All merger, all the time in Montpelier today

The merger is the thing in Montpelier today, where the House and Senate are scheduled to render judgment on a key aspect of the pending consolidation of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service.

At issue, of course, is the manner in which the utilities propose to compensate CVPS ratepayers for bailing the company out of a bad power deal in 2001. Specifically, some lawmakers are angered that the $21 million repayment will be recouped by the utilities in the form of higher rates.  

A mind-bending parade of amendments, amendments to amendments, resolutions and more amendments has come and gone over the past 24 hours. Even as lawmakers near a denouement to this weeks-long political conflagration, it’s unclear exactly what they’ll vote on today, or what the final count will be.

The options are legion, from unapologetic interference in an open regulatory docket, to a delicate wrap on the knuckles delivered in the form of a nonbinding resolution.

An early-morning Senate caucus – lawmakers were strolling the halls well before8 a.m.today – underscored not only the resonance of the windfall issue but growing frustration over the lack of a legislative vehicle to address it.

Sen. Ann Cummings said she’s intent on passing something that reflects legislators’ strong aversion to the utilities’ payback plan.

“At some level, it offends my sense of fairness and justice … that utilities should be able to take from ratepayers to give back the money they borrowed from them,” Cummings said.

But she said she won’t cast a vote to force the Public Service Board to reject the utilities’ plan. Cummings said she’ll opt instead for a nonbinding resolution that will allow lawmakers to codify their outrage without actually imposing conditions to resolve it.

Sen. Randy Brock said he doesn’t want to interfere in an open docket either. But short of that kind of intervention, he said, the Legislature isn’t going to remedy the problem.

“I do not want to interfere in Public Service Board Dockets – it offends me to do that,” Brock said. “But when you look at our responsibilities as a Senate, it would offend me even more to allow (the $21 million to be recouped) and sit idly by wringing my hands.”

The House, too, faces a slew of options, none of which has emerged as a consensus favorite. An amendment authored in March by Rep. Cynthia Browning calls for the most drastic form of intervention and would, as a condition of the merger, force the utilities to issue checks totaling $21 million to CVPS ratepayers, and not recoup the money in rates.

Another amendment calls for the creation of some kind of board, whose sole purpose would be to represent ratepayers, small business and other groups too poor to lawyer up for PSB proceedings. Rep. Paul Ralston, the Middlebury Democrat who authored that language, says the new board would prevent similar situations in the future.

The House also has a nonbinding resolution, which pretty much asks Commissioner of Public Service Elizabeth Miller to conduct a study to see whether she did a good job negotiating the merger proposal (her department issued a memorandum endorsing the utilities’ plan last month).

Lawmakers pushing for more direct action call the resolution a joke.

Both bodies are on the floor right now, though it could be hours before final votes are cast.

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