Perhaps the most bruising battle of last year’s legislative session was the debate over a measure to preserve favorable rates for rooftop solar power. Although the bill was supported by a disparate group of stakeholders — including the state’s major utilities, environmental groups, the local solar industry and the Public Advocate — the governor vetoed it. While the measure sailed unanimously through the Senate, opposition to the bill grew so hot in the House that five GOP lawmakers hid in the House Republican office to avoid a vote on the override. In the end, the House failed by a handful of votes to secure a veto override due to Republican opposition. The governor was so incensed at Tim Schneider, the Public Advocate, for supporting  the bill that he is replacing him with former Democratic legislator Barry Hobbins of Saco. In a press conference, last week, the governor accused Schneider of being a “solar guy.”

“How can he put up something that is wrong and he is convinced that solar is the future?” LePage said. “That means he’s not agnostic to technology. He was not agnostic to technology and he was not lowering the price on the ratepayer.”

Earlier this year, the three members of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission voted to reduce the compensation grid-tied solar power producers receive for the energy they produce. But they didn’t go far enough for LePage, and he has declared that he is now looking for a replacement for Commissioner Carlysle McLean, whom he appointed just two years ago. At the same time, local solar companies have stated that the rate cuts are scaring away potential solar customers. Maine is currently last in New England for installed solar capacity even as solar jobs are growing by 25 percent per year nationally. There are about 500 solar jobs in Maine, and the previous bill would have added about 800 more, according to industry numbers. 

This year, there are even fewer Democrats in the House, but solar supporters aren’t giving up the fight. Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) is sponsoring legislation, LD 1373, that would strengthen the net energy billing system to ensure solar producers receive the same price for the power they produce as they have in the past, reinstate a solar rebate program that LePage let expire, and use funding from the Efficiency Maine Trust to offset the cost of solar installations.

“Maine spends billions of dollars a year on fossil fuel energy, which is all from out of state,” said Berry in a statement. “More solar will let us own our energy future, benefit all ratepayers and create more good-paying jobs here in Maine.”

The Legislature’s Energy, Utilities & Technology Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill on Thursday, May 4, at 1 p.m.

Single-Payer for Maine?

Following the failure of Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, many progressives, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have seized the opportunity to push for a Canadian-style single-payer health insurance system, also known as “Medicare for All.” But while passing single-payer is likely impossible with Trump as president and Republicans controlling Congress, states have begun looking into the idea.

Rep. Heidi Brooks (D-Lewiston) has sponsored a bill (LD 1274) to establish a comprehensive single-payer system to cover most Maine residents by 2020. The measure will be heard by the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee on May 4, but a number of impediments stand in the way — not least of all Gov. Paul LePage.

2017 is the first year that states can apply for a special waiver from the federal government to develop “innovative healthcare models,” including single-payer type systems. But the upfront costs and a federal law that prevents states from regulating large employer-sponsored plans have presented challenges. Vermont notably became the first state to pass single-payer, only to have former Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin balk at implementing it due in large part to the high cost of financing such an ambitious program. 

Nevertheless, as patients pay increasingly astronomical fees for their health care, the demand grows for a system that has been proven to significantly reduce health care costs and improve outcomes over the current system. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of respondents favor replacing the ACA with a federally funded health care system. And physicians are beginning to jump on board. In 2002, Maine Medical Association passed a resolution opposing single payer, but another survey in 2014 found that 64.3 percent of its 462 respondents supported the policy. In 2015, the MMA testified that “more physicians are leaning towards a single-payer approach as they continue to witness the deficits and frustrations of our current system in their daily work.”