Guest Editorial: The bigger picture

When Central Vermont Public Service was granted an emergency rate increase in 2001, the deal struck was that the utility would repay the difference to ratepayers when, and if, the utility was sold. The amount was an estimated $21 million.
CVPS is I the process of being acquired by Gaz Metro, the Quebec Company that owns Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas. It took a nanosecond before the question of the $21 million took center stage.
The utilities had already advertised the fact that the merger would “save” their users and estimated $144 million over the first 10 years. The thought was that creating a more efficient system was tantamount to sending a check out to each of the utility’s users.
Uhh, no.
It’s not.
Not to the Vermont chapter of the AARP.
They opposed the suggestion that the utility’s ratepayers would reap the benefit they were owed if the utilities were allowed to absorb the “debt” in hypothetical savings.
The governor jumped in on AARP’s crusade, agreeing that the connection between the money owed and the ratepayers should be tangible.
In other words, send the check.
Last Wednesday, yet another offer was made. Both GMP and CVPS have proposed investing the $21 million in customer efficiency, weatherization and community-based renewable energy projects. The proposal was structured after a Pubic Service Board model used in the 2007 sale of GMP to Gas Metro.
Viewed holistically, the utilities’ proposed is superior to any other suggestion on the table. It’s a $21 million investment designed to reduce our overall energy consumption. It serves the system, not just the individual. It’s estimated that the $21 million investment would produce $40 million in energy savings. It could also produce a number of jobs along the way.
That’s the sort of thinking we should applaud. It helps move us all forward.
It did not, however, meet with the AARP’s approval.
Greg Marchidon, state AARP director, was quoted as saying: “It doesn’t do at all what we want it to do. First of all, this is the people’s money. We believe the CVPS ratepayers who bailed these guys out know best how to spend their money. This isn’t the role of the state or GMP to figure out how to spend it…. There’s something inherently wrong in this because it’s just not fair.”
Well, there is something inherently wrong, but it’s not the utilities’ proposal. What’s wrong is that the AARP is maximizing the issue for the fundraising gift that it is. It’s not often that lobbying groups get the chance to actually campaign for an issue that stuffs money in their member’s pockets. They would like to take credit for leading the crusade that puts a $76 check in the mailbox of every CVPS customer.
That’s how an organized lobby builds loyalty. And in Vermont, or anywhere else in American, there are few lobbying groups with more power than the AARP. Nationwide, they have 40 million members, and they have an organization so large it has its own zip code. In Washington, the AARP is widely recognized as the capital’s most powerful self-interest group.
Obviously, they are not a group to take lightly. They have the money and the power to drive home any message they would like — and this is a message they like. There’s no downside for them. The only thing better would be getting permission to actually sign the checks.
There is a downside for Vermont, however. If the politicians and the Department of Public Service cave to the lobbying group’s efforts, the system loses. Sending out checks to CVPS customers does nothing to improve the state’s drive toward delivering a more efficient and more diverse energy system.
The difference between the two approaches is stark. The AARP’s approach is a one-time check to every CVPS ratepayer. The benefit is largely political. The utilities’ approach is an investment that keeps on giving — it’s like getting a check each month for the foreseeable future. The benefit is systemic.
That is how it should be, if we are not to be controlled by special interests. It’s the bigger picture.
Emerson Lynn/St. Albans Messenger

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