Hager's bill to end NC's renewables policy refuses to die

jmurawski@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2013 

Meet the bill with nine lives – and twice as many votes cast against it.

Lawmakers on Wednesday could once again attempt to end a state renewables policy whose proponents say has elevated North Carolina to the nation’s fifth-largest developer of solar farms.

Last week, lawmakers defeated the measure 18-13 in a House committee. At the time proponents of solar power and renewables celebrated a rare victory.

On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Hager, the bill’s sponsor, revived it for another vote.

Even by the standards of North Carolina’s partisan legislature, the push to undo the 6-year-old energy policy marks unusual determination to salvage a struggling bill.

For their part, advocates of solar power and renewables are now bracing for the potential of esoteric parliamentary maneuvers that are used on rare occasion to advance controversial bills for last-minute votes.

“It sounds like it’s never dead from what I’m learning,” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County, said. “This is a lot of procedural maneuvering.”

Conservative activists have come to see North Carolina’s legislation as a litmus test for party organization and ideological credentials. The repeal effort involves at least 16 organizations – including American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and The Heartland Institute – that want North Carolina to serve as a national model for rolling back policies that conservatives say interfere with free markets.

Still, three of the state’s most powerful Republican lawmakers voted against the bill last week in the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy. A companion bill has languished in the Senate for almost six weeks.

But Hager, the Republican chair of the House committee who represents Burke and Rutherford counties, said his proposal remains in play as long as he runs the committee and can schedule bills.

The former Duke Energy engineer said he hopes some lawmakers switch votes and others miss the meeting; he won’t decide whether he’ll put his bill to another vote until the last minute Wednesday.

“It’s all about the numbers,” Hager explained. “It’s all about who has the incentive to be there.”

Hager is prepared to bring up his bill at the next three Wednesday committee meetings if needed for a favorable vote. His do-overs have put supporters of solar and renewables on defensive alert.

“We’re working with those who oppose the bill to make sure they have really good attendance in this committee and that they stay true to their vote,” said Betsy McCorkle, government affairs director for the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, the renewables trade organization in Raleigh.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill also is scheduled for a committee Wednesday, as the legislative clock shows just 15 days left in the session to move bills from one chamber to the other to keep legislation alive.

Conservative lobbyists say last week’s House committee vote was a fluke that does not reflect a lack of support for their effort to end such policies.

“There is a majority interested in reforming this bad law,” said Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina director for the Arlington, Va.-based Americans for Prosperity. “While there was not the right mix in the committee on that day, some of them may need more education.”

After last week’s vote, a visibly angry Woodhouse called it “a horrible vote by Republicans” and threatened “they need to be held accountable.”

Voting against the bill were Rep. Tim Moore of Cleveland County, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee; Wake County’s Nelson Dollar, senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Conference Leader Ruth Samuelson of Mecklenburg County.

Dollar could not be reached for comment, but Moore and Samuelson said Tuesday they don’t plan to change their vote.

“Unless it is substantially different I would plan on voting ‘no’ again,” Moore said.

Woodhouse said options to advance the bill to the full House for a floor vote include attaching the bill to other legislation or sending the proposal as a minority report, both of which would bypass defeats in committee.

But for now attention is turned to the committee members in whose hands the fate of the bill rests. Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Nordquist sent a plea to members of the House public utilities committee Tuesday.

“This misguided policy acts much like a hidden tax,” Nordquist wrote. “Experience has shown that renewable energy mandates, like the one on the books in North Carolina, have a negative impact on the economy and an adverse impact on your constituents’ pocketbooks.”

Nordquist concluded his letter with a warning: “ATR will be following this issue closely and educating your constituents as to how their representatives in the General Assembly vote on this important matter.”

Current state law, which passed with bipartisan support in 2007, requires that at least 12.5 percent of retail power sales by electric utilities come from renewables and energy efficiency programs by 2021, and continuing indefinitely at that level.

Hager’s bill would have eliminated the requirement in 2021.

If that version is enacted, Duke Energy and others could let their existing energy contracts run out and wouldn’t have to renew deals to buy or generate more electricity from solar, wind, biomass, or offset electricity demand by subsidizing conservation programs with incentives for customers.

Critics of the law say it inflates power bills because electric utilities are allowed to pass any extra cost of renewables to their customers.

Currently, Duke Energy residential customers pay 22 cents a month, while Progress Energy residential customers pay 42 cents a month, to subsidize renewables. Commercial and industrial customers pay between $3.29 a month and $34.32 a month.

Despite its recent defeat, Hager’s bill can be reconsidered in the Committee on Public Utilities and Energy because of a technicality. Last week’s vote was to reject a favorable report out of committee, rather than to endorse an unfavorable report out of committee. As a result, the bill merely failed to advance, but was not killed outright.

“It pays to know this,” Hager said Tuesday, waving North Carolina’s legislative rule book in his hand. “It’s still active and still out there by the rules of the House.”

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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