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April 18, 2012

At Press Conference, Shumlin Clarifies Position on Utility Merger — Kind Of

One of the key questions in the debate over Gaz Metro’s proposed acquisition of Central Vermont Public Service is this: Is it ever okay for the legislature to stick its nose into a regulatory process governed by the independent Public Service Board?

As we reported in this week’s Seven Days, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s answer last week appeared to be no, not ever. Outside an energy conference in Burlington last Monday, he said, “It’s absolutely inappropriate for the legislature or the governor to weigh in through law on a pending [Public Service Board] case.”

But later that week, Shumlin was asked at a press conference whether he did just that when, as Senate President Pro Tem, he orchestrated a 2010 vote denying Vermont Yankee a new operating license.

The gov’s answer?

No, he said. He was just following Act 160 — a law passed during his four-year hiatus from the Senate — which gave the legislature an up-or-down vote on Yankee’s relicensing. He further added that Act 160 — a law he utilized when trying to shut down Vermont Yankee — wasn’t such a hot idea in the first place.

At a press conference today, however, Shumlin shifted — ahem, elaborated on — his stance.

Asked about his effort last spring to charge Entergy, which owns Vermont Yankee, for any legal expenses the state incurred defending a lawsuit brought by the company, Shumlin today established a new standard of interference: If it has to do with Vermont Yankee, the legislature can do whatever the hell it pleases. If it has to do with utility acquisitions, leave well enough alone.

“The role of the legislature is different in Entergy than it has been in other regulated cases,” Shumlin said, because the legislature authorized the plant’s construction in the first place and then gave itself a role in the relicensing process.

Wait, what? Don’t worry, he explained:

“I continue to believe there was a precedent set by the governor and the legislature when I was not in public service — you can’t blame me for this one — that required legislative activity in the question, all questions related to the continued operation of the plant.”

Translation: Because the legislature meddled in Yankee matters before, it can meddle in Yankee matters whenever it wants. But not in utility deals. That’s not cool.

At least the governor remains consistent about whether he supports Gaz Metro’s acquisition of CVPS, right?

Depends how you ask.

When WPTZ-TV’s Stewart Ledbetter inquired whether the guv would try to prevent the legislature from interfering with the deal, Shumlin said lawmakers were having a healthy discussion. And hey, he wishes CVPS wasn’t up for sale in the first place.

“As I’ve said before, I didn’t ask for this merger,” he said. “I would prefer that CVPS continue to be owned by CVPS, a Vermont company. We don’t have that choice. They’ve decided to sell.”

That being the case, Shumlin argued, his job was to figure out who the best purchaser would be — and to get the best deal possible.

But, queried the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld, “If you would prefer that CVPS continue to be just owned by CVPS, then why is your department telling the Public Service Board to approve the merger in the first place?”

“Well, because governors and states don’t have that control over whether a company stays. We don’t get to choose in America — in a free capitalist society — who owns what companies,” the guv patiently explained.

“But you’re saying you think the public would be better off if CV remained as is—“ Hirschfeld parried.

“And I wish that Ben & Jerry’s was still owned by Ben & Jerry’s, not Unilever,” Shumlin responded.

“But your Department of Public Service is supposed to intervene on behalf of the public and advocate for the public interest and you think the public interest is in having CVPS not merge with Green Mountain Power,” Hirschfeld said. “I’m just curious why you would then direct your department to—“

“Because they made the choice to sell,” Shumlin said, noting that, “We’re not Cuba, we’re America.” His job, he repeated, was to figure out which purchaser had the better offer — and then fight to make it even better.

Shumlin elaborated: “Now I personally believe that this merger will bring savings to ratepayers over what we would have gotten otherwise if they hadn’t sold.”

Wait. Hold the phone! Didn’t he just say he’d prefer CVPS remain an independent, Vermont company?

Never fear! Hirschfeld was on the case:

“So just to be clear: do you think it would be a good thing for Green Mountain Power and CVPS to merge?” the scribe asked.

“Yes,” the guv replied, succinctly.

“Do you think that would be a better result than if they remained independent utilities and CVPS remained a Vermont-owned, independent utility and Gaz Metro remained as it does?” Hirschfeld asked.

“I believe there will be savings in this merger for ratepayers that we would not have gotten if they’d been separately owned,” Shumlin said.

Got it?

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