Lawmakers look to impose will on GMP/CVPS merger proposal

A coalition of lawmakers will look to sway the terms of a blockbuster utility merger with a proposed amendment to a renewable-energy bill Wednesday.

In a morning press conference at the Statehouse, lawmakers from all three major parties will introduce language that would effectively force the consolidated utility to pay ratepayers at Central Vermont Public Service Corp. a direct cash payment before any merger deal goes through.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), Patti Komline (R-Dorset), Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and Paul Poirier (I-Barre), deals with a so-called “windfall protection” clause that has become one of the more controversial aspects of the proposed merger between Green Mountain Power and CVPS.  

CVPS hit a financial rough patch early in the last decade when its long-term power contract with Hydro-Quebec forced the utility to pay above-market rates for wholesale electricity.

To stave off financial calamity, CVPS sought permission for a rate hike from the Public Service Board in excess of what the board’s conventional rate-setting formula would otherwise allow.

The board okayed the increase, but stipulated that ratepayers would be made whole if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid.

AARP is leading a public campaign to make sure those cash payments are issued before the merger goes through. The $21 million AARP says is due to ratepayers amounts to $76 for each of CVPS’ 137,000 residential customers. Commercial customers would enjoy payouts of about $352 on average, and industrial businesses could see checks in excess of $12,500.

GMP says it’s satisfied the windfall protection clause by offering to invest $40 million in an efficiency program that officials say would reap ongoing savings for all ratepayers. AARP and many lawmakers say it’s a raw deal however, and want cash in the pockets of customers.

The amendment will likely be ruled not germane to the underlying renewable energy bill. But lawmakers will have made their point. The opinions that matter most, of course, are those belonging to the three members of the Public Service Board, which has ultimately say over the terms of any merger deal.

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