Can utility reform survive political turf wars?
Call it the politics of power.
United in demanding utility reforms after last year's storm-related outages, key lawmakers in Hartford are showing some signs of protecting their turf as they get to work drafting and passing bills.
Last week state Senate Democrats held a news conference to propose policy changes resulting from widespread frustration over Connecticut Light & Power's handling of August's Tropical Storm Irene and October's nor'easter.
"We know folks in Connecticut want not only greater accountability but greater energy security for the state of Connecticut," said Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn.
But the senators had not invited Fonfara's energy cochair, Rep. Vickie Nardello, D-Prospect. "I was not aware of this proposal, nor were we contacted about attending the press conference," Nardello said afterward, adding, "The best process is to have a joint press conference."
However it was Nardello in November who flew solo when she joined House Speaker Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, in calling for utility performance standards and related penalties mirroring those in Massachusetts.
In contrast, the energy cochairs and House and Senate leaders in early September bent over backwards to appear unified, announcing hearings on Irene in a joint statement that quoted a dozen legislators, Fonfara and Nardello included.
Capitol observers familiar with the sometimes tense relationships between the House and Senate energy chairs would not be shocked to see a bifurcated approach to preventing a recurrence of 2011's widespread and lengthy blackouts.
Fonfara and Nardello's predecessor, ex-Rep. Steven Fontana, D-North Haven, had their share of issues. In 2007 the pair were at odds over deregulating. Fonfara supported the state's decision to deregulate. Fontana wanted to reverse course.
Two years later, when Nardello took over as House energy chair, she tried to re-regulate. Fonfara again stood his ground.
Then in 2010 Nardello took issue with Fonfara's introduction of a controversial amendment to a bill aimed at preventing another power plant explosion like the one that occurred at the Kleen Energy site in Middletown that February.
The chairs did manage to collaborate that year on a massive energy bill that passed both chambers but was vetoed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. A second attempt succeeded in 2011 with help from Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
"This is a big generalization, but the Senate's philosophy is more competition and free market," Cafero said. "The House philosophy, by way of the chair, is more regulatory."
The Senate's utility reforms include developing performance standards to address utilities' storm planning and preparedness. But Fonfara cautioned, "I don't think most people in this state are interested in penalizing the utilities for the sake of penalizing them."
Nardello and Donovan in November had wanted to go a step further, linking utility executive pay to performance.
"The one thing you don't want to do is to have such a chilling effect that you see a negative impact on who wants to work here in our state," Fonfara said when it was noted that such an idea had not been adopted by the senators. "For every action there will be a reaction."
Asked whether the absence of Nardello or other House members signaled division, Fonfara said absolutely not.
Nardello said, "We may be totally on board with the proposals that came out of the Senate. But I can't answer that without having looked at them carefully."
Fontana did not want to talk about his relationship with Fonfara, but he said that even if tensions between the energy chairs again arise the House and Senate can unify to work out any issues and pass reforms.
"I'm pretty confident they'll work it out," Fontana said. "It's too important."
Joseph McGee, who oversaw a task force that earlier this winter recommended how the utilities and the state can better react to major weather events, also remained optimistic the General Assembly will pass significant changes.
McGee noted Malloy has submitted a bill of his own adopting several of the task force's ideas.
"My view is no one's claiming total ownership, but everyone's doing pieces and at the end of the day it gets done," McGee said.
"I haven't read into it any kind of jurisdictional fighting (and) there's not one perfect approach to this, either."
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