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In Utility Merger Fight, A Battle For Votes — Or For Hearts and Minds?


Published April 10, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.

If supporters of a proposed merger between the state’s two largest electric companies made one thing clear Tuesday it’s this: They’re winning the inside game in the Statehouse.

At a hearing held by two House committees Tuesday morning, an all-star lineup of current and former regulators, business leaders and the execs of the merging companies — Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service — stepped up to the microphone to say, “Hey legislature, mind your beeswax and quit meddling with the merger.”

House Energy Committee chairman Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), who organized the hearing, said that with the merger battle royale focused on a disputed $21 million component, his goal was to broaden the scope of the debate.

“It’s a $700-million-plus deal and we’re only focused on $21 million. Part of this hearing was to find out what’s in the rest of the $700 million,” he said.

To opponents of the deal, Klein — who, like House Speaker Shap Smith, believes the legislature shouldn’t weigh in on the merger — was simply trying to change the subject. They say Smith and the merger’s chief elected booster, Gov. Peter Shumlin, are bottling up two bills that could be amended by detractors to change the terms of the merger.

“I think they’re just trying to run out the session and then we’ll all go away,” says Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), who coauthored an amendment that would force the merging companies to cut $21 million in checks to ratepayers.

If that is indeed the House leadership’s not-so-secret plan, it certainly appears to be working. Though Komline says she’s convinced 80 House members to support her amendment — a majority of the 150-member body — you can’t amend a bill that's not going to the floor.

Over in the Senate, antagonism toward the merger has been louder but less organized. While Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell has bucked the Shumlin administration by indicating ambivalence toward the deal, it’s anyone’s guess whether he'll organize his chamber to oppose it. Campbell did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

So with merger proponents winning the inside game at the Statehouse, it’s time for those who want to tweak the deal to take their ball and go home, right?

Not if you ask Greg Marchildon, Vermont state director for AARP. His interest group is the loudest proponent of returning the $21 million — the value of a 2001 ratepayer-financed bailout of CVPS — to consumers and businesses, rather than investing it in energy efficiency, as the electric companies and the Shumlin administration have proposed.