WNPR

Lawmakers Criticize Cuts To Energy Efficiency Programs That They Voted For

Feb 13, 2018

Legislators convened in Hartford Tuesday to decry a budget sweep, which took tens of millions of dollars out of energy efficiency programs and swept it into the state's general fund.

As WNPR has been reporting, the last-minute move to plug up the budget has been criticized as a "hidden tax" on utility consumers.

As lawmakers piled up to the microphone Tuesday, consensus formed quickly. Raiding $175 million from programs funding home energy audits and weatherization was bad.

Customers still paying surcharges on their utility bills to fund those programs, basically dumping money into the state's pockets, they said, is also bad.

Except, and this is where it's awkward, lots of those legislators voted for this whole arrangement.

“What the legislature did, and I'm complicit in it, was we did a bait and switch,” said state Representative Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the Energy and Technology Committee.

He voted for the budget, but said, “it was a mistake I did consciously.”

Steinberg said he wasn’t in the room with leadership during final negotiations, but that a consensus agreement had already taken months, leaving him with no choice but to vote yes.

“When I found out, and it was at the very last minute, that there were sweeps to the tune of $175 million, I was outraged,” Steinberg said. “Given the effort we had made to educate our leadership on how important that was for green jobs in the state -- and any number of other reasons.”

Steinberg said he immediately started working with his colleagues, like committee co-chair Lonnie Reed, who also voted "yes" on the budget, to restore at least some of the cuts.

Lorenzo Wyatt, an energy contractor based in Stratford, said he hopes legislators find a way. He's laid off employees because of the raid.

“It's painful to let people go,” Wyatt said. “It's hard to look at someone and say, 'You know what, we can’t keep you here. You're going to have to find some other way to pay your bills.'”

Wyatt says more than 90 percent of the customers he serves are low-income, or “income eligible.”

“They’re spending such a disproportionate amount of their income on energy costs,” Wyatt said.

As WNPR has reported, many of those lower-income customers heat with oil, but pay into the program via their electric bills. Because of the energy efficiency cuts, some are now being denied services.

Wyatt said he hopes the legislature, or utility companies, will restore support for efficiency services for oil customers “who really need these services the most.”

“It’s not taxpayer money, it’s ratepayer money that’s being used to plug a budget gap,” Wyatt said.

For them, he says what the legislature did “is an injustice” by blocking access to programs set up for their benefit.