I sensed at midweek that many Senators were eager for our February one week break allowing for some possible travel or simply to have a relaxed week at home with no trips to Concord.
The past few weeks have been pretty intense as the legislative season requires. Days have been filled with committee hearings, executive sessions to redraft and amend bills before voting on them, caucuses and meetings with lobbyists and constituents on the many and varied bills before us.
The weekly Senate sessions on Wednesdays are very organized and move along predictably thanks to the Senate president pushing us along. We usually finish up at a reasonable time.
As Senators enjoy their break this week, our only time off before we end the 2012 session in early June, there is no illusion about how much work is left to do in coming weeks. March will see committees pressed to "get their bills out" so that the Senate can vote on them by cross-over day on Mar. 29.
While a few bills that started in the House have already been passed and have reached the Senate, there are hundreds more headed our way. Each one will have a public hearing before a Senate committee, get a committee recommendation and be voted on by the full Senate.
My last duty before I left the State House was to attend a confirmation hearing for two new appointees of the Governor to the Public Utilities Commission and one appointment moving a commissioner up to chair of the Commission.
As chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee I work closely with the Commission. I was asked by current Commissioner Amy Ignatius to speak on her behalf as the Governor has named her to be the PUCís next chair.
I have known Commissioner Ignatius for several years. Before her appointment to the Commission, she served as director of the Office of Energy and Planning which also deals regularly with the Senate Energy Committee. She has worked on utility regulatory matters as an attorney in private practice and now as a government official.
The public hearing by the five-member Executive Council on the confirmation of appointees to the Public Utilities Commission is required by law. Appointees speak and offer their qualifications and then those supporting or opposing the appointments testify.
While most citizens will never directly have interaction with the Public Utilities Commission it is an important government agency. Every time you look at a bill from a telephone company or electric company, the rates you pay are likely set by the PUC.
The roots of the PUC can be traced back to 1838 when the legislature created the position of county railroad commissioners. In 1844, the state pulled the county railroad commissioners together by establishing the State Board of Railroad Commissioners. It was the first such board in the nation.
It was 100 years ago, in 1911, that the legislature created a commission to regulate utilities and railroads. Oversight and regulation of railroads was moved to a new agency, the Department of Transportation, when it was created in 1985.
Today, the PUC has general jurisdiction over electric, telecommunications, natural gas, water and sewer utilities. It has responsibility to oversee rates, quality of service, finances, accounting and safety of utilities.
While at first look one might say, "how boring." But with telecommunications, as one example, there is very real change taking place as traditional telephone companies face competition and challenges from new technologies. And the legislature and the Public Utilities Commission must make decisions about what is fair to the regulated companies and their customers as competitors enter the marketplace.
Most recently, the Senate passed a bill (SB 48) to lessen the PUCís regulation of local telephone companies including Fair Point to help them compete against cable companies that increasingly offer telecommunications services.
When legislators return to Concord next week, the Senate will be working on a bill (SB 218) to change the electric renewable portfolio standards statue. The current RPS law provides an opportunity for electric producers such as those using solar installations, biomass burners or small hydro facilities to claim renewable energy certificates that provide money to sustain their operations.
Whatever the legislature decides to do, the Public Utilities Commission will oversee the implementation of the statue. The legislature sets the policy Ö however appropriate Ö and the PUC makes the policy and laws work.
Even with our October Halloween surprise snowstorm and the long period of electric outages that followed, the public and government officials turned to the Public Utilities Commission to investigate what went wrong. The PUC has a record of instilling public confidence and respect in the work they do for all of us.
The Executive Council hearing last Wednesday was unique. The Commission has three members with two spots currently vacant. I served with one appointee, Michael Harrington, when I was in the House of Representatives. He is talented and knowledgeable person who has held assignments at the PUC in the past.
And Robert Scott is someone I have worked with over the years. The Department of Environmental Services has three directors under the Commissioner including Bob Scott who is director of the air quality division. His responsibility is to monitor air quality in the state and implement efforts to improve it. He is a very good choice for the commission.
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