Opinion: The billionaire force behind GOP attempts to dismantle Maine’s renewable energy standards

Source: By Phil Bartlett, Special to the Bangor Daily News • Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Put into effect nearly 15 years ago with bipartisan support, Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard has created thousands of jobs, cut down on harmful pollution and helped to keep more of Mainers’ energy dollars in the state. Requiring 30 percent of the state’s energy providers’ electricity sales to come from renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power, it has also led to tremendous investment by renewable energy companies that are paying more than $17 million annually in property taxes and employing more than 2,500 Mainers.

Simply put, the Renewable Portfolio Standard is working — for everyday Mainers and businesses alike. In light of our struggling economy, programs such as the RPS should be celebrated and protected. So what could possibly have motivated Gov. Paul LePage to devote an entire weekly radio address to attacking the program? And why are some elected officials pushing legislation that would dismantle it?

A new report by the Maine Conservation Alliance, Maine’s Majority Education Fund and Maine People’s Alliance, issued earlier this month, sheds some light on the powerful forces fueling LePage and his allies’ efforts to weaken Maine’s RPS: Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists from Kansas and owners of the second largest private company in the U.S. with revenues estimated at $100 billion a year.

The Kochs have an aggressive network of front groups at their behest in our state, which they leverage frequently to help them promote and pursue their financial interests. These groups operate for the most part behind the scenes in the form of think tanks, campaigns, nonprofit organizations and legislative PACs. The activities of this network are deceptive by design to mask their deep self-interest: The Kochs have no stake in the long-term viability of our state, aside from making sure that the policies in place bolster their bottom line.

The process goes something like this: Businesses affiliated with the Kochs (including oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil) give vast sums of money to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization that drafts conservative model bills that are introduced by legislators who are ALEC members and receive campaign donations from ALEC-affiliated groups. Once a bill is introduced, Americans for Prosperity, another national, Koch-connected group with a chapter in Maine, mobilizes to promote the legislation and attack any legislative opponents. In tandem with these efforts, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative, free-market think-tank that is a member of the Koch-funded State Policy Network, will often push out reports funded by the same corporate interests that stand to benefit from their conclusions.

And from first-hand experience, I can tell you that this model — though sinister — works to a frightening degree. During the 126th Legislature alone, more than 20 ALEC-linked bills were introduced, including LD 646, sponsored by Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, which would change Maine’s rules to include large hydropower as part of the calculation of the RPS. This bill is nearly identical, in both wording and intent, to the “Electricity Freedom Act,” which has been introduced in 16 other states just this year and is based on the findings from what this very paper referred to as “a biased report” released by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, which has received more than $817,000 from Koch foundations.

The shoddily crafted Beacon Hill report was widely disseminated by the Maine Heritage Policy Center and has been embraced by LePage, who continues to cite its “findings” as justification for weakening Maine’s renewable energy policies. Incidentally, ALEC also contributed nearly $96,000 to LePage’s election campaign in 2010 through its Private Enterprise Committee.

In 2012, Republican Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, of Winterport, introduced another doomed piece of legislation, LD 1863, which was very similar to the ALEC model bill. Unsurprisingly, Thibodeau is one of a handful of legislators in the State House, including Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, and Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who are active members of ALEC.

According to financial filings, his political action committee, Paving the Way for a Prosperous Maine, has received $15,850 in contributions from ALEC-affiliated entities like Phrma, AstraZeneca and Spectra Energy, which his PAC has used to support a number of candidates, including fellow ALEC members Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, and former Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston.

The attempts by LePage and his allies to dismantle Maine’s RPS represent an embrace of a corporatist approach to Maine’s energy policy, which, if left unchecked, will have serious, damaging consequences for Maine consumers and our environment. As a former legislator, I am perhaps most troubled by the ease with which these groups have infiltrated our State House.

We all want Maine to be a leader in the renewable-energy arena and welcome out-of-state companies and philanthropies who seek to do business here with open arms. But we cannot and will not sit quietly while corporate groups are aggressively seeking to bolster their own bottom lines at the expense of Mainers.

Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, represented Maine’s 6th district in the Maine Senate from 2004-2012, serving as Senate majority leader from 2010-2012.