Internal Republican Party politics ignited by House Speaker Thom Tillis’ pending departure and a philosophical battle between moderates and conservatives helped torpedo a bill weaning renewable energy companies from millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, said state Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford.
“I think with our speaker leaving, that part is on everybody’s mind,” Hager said. “Who the next speaker is going to be is probably woven into any controversial issue we’re dealing with.”
Tillis has announced he will not seek re-election, and Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, already has announced her intention to run for the Speaker’s post.
Hager noted that Samuelson and Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, joined a moderate GOP coalition to stop House Bill 298 because they “felt like we need to let this go for awhile, it hasn’t matured enough, and we need an alternative” to fossil fuels.
Hager said he was surprised to see how deeply entrenched “green” corporate welfare has become in North Carolina, which also played a role in his failed attempt to usher H.B. 298, the Affordable and Reliable Energy Act, through the committee process.
But he believes the attention the disputed bill received raised awareness among GOP colleagues that there is no end in sight to the expensive, tax-fueled subsidies allowing a handful of companies to enrich themselves. That spotlight helped in beating back several other renewable bills that were bad for the taxpayer, he said.
Hager hopes to continue fighting for the conservative ideal of ending the state’s renewable energy subsidies and renewable energy purchase mandates by resurrecting the issues as part of a far-reaching study.
“It looks like we’re going to elevate this up to a Governor’s Blue Ribbon Study Commission,” Hager said.
“It’s kind of in the planning stages right now,” Hager said. He and Tillis have met on the matter, and he said Tillis wants discussions to include Tony Almeida, senior advisor to Gov. Pat McCrory on jobs and the economy.
“I’m hoping it will start up before we get out of session,” Hager said of the blue ribbon panel. He envisions it comprising members who are knowledgeable about energy, and interested in driving down the cost of energy in North Carolina. “That has to be the common tenet of any study commission.”
A request for comment from the speaker’s office was not answered.
Almeida said there has been a “diverse team of folks” meeting on renewable and traditional energy issues.
“They have delivered to us a framework around energy policy and strategy. We have not had a chance yet to review that with the governor,” Almeida said.
Sometime this summer and fall administration officials and legislative members will conduct “more detail work on that [framework] with energy experts,” Almeida said.
A blue ribbon commission is “something we’re toying with,” he said. “We’ll be determining our go-forth position in the next [several] weeks,” and whatever direction is taken it will involve officials from the state public Utilities Commission and other departments that would be affected.
Almeida said scaling back mandates in Senate Bill 3, which requires power companies to purchase increasingly rising, pre-determined volumes of renewable energy from solar, biomass, poultry and swine waste sources, likely would be considered.
He also said changes in state law allowing third-party sales in the renewable market “would be an issue that needs more study as well,” Almeida said. That would let individuals, companies, or nonprofits that produce renewable energy for their own use sell surplus energy on the power grid.
Without specifying, he said there are “a number of other policy issues that need further work.”
McCrory is pursuing an “all-of-the-above energy sources and resources [policy] to meet the needs of North Carolina citizens and keep the state as competitive as possible for investment and job creation, which is our absolute top priority,” Almeida said.
He said the “clean-tech cluster” in the Triangle, and the green energy “design, construction, and build cluster” in the Charlotte region have generated “a number of jobs.”
Hager has criticized what he calls bloated job creation claims by the renewable industry. A peer-reviewed study study by economists at the Beacon Hill Institute of Suffolk University in Boston for the John Locke Foundation made the same case.
“There’s a lot of money involved there, a lot of policy” that drove the opposition to H.B. 298, Hager said. Renewable energy companies “don’t want the gravy train to end. They make a lot of money off of this” and stick residential ratepayers and small businesses with the subsidy bill.
“We had people just coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘You’re going to hurt my bottom line,’” and that was effective in persuading some Republicans to peel away from support of his bill, Hager said.
But, he said, most of those testifying against the bill were landowners, manufacturers, and hog and poultry farmers with a vested financial interest in keeping the flow of tax dollars intact.
“Anything where you have a sector of business being propped up by taxpayers is not an ideal situation,” Hager said.
“To do away with that is a very conservative ideal,” he said. “We don’t pick our winners and losers” in a free-market economy.
“I think that you certainly have got to be disappointed on what was a good conservative issue” failing to win Republican backing, Hager said. After the bill passed narrowly the House Commerce Committee, six Republicans voted against it in an 18-13 vote that killed it in the Public Utilities and Energy Committee that Hager chairs.
“Like Rep. [Jeff] Collins [a Nash County Republican] told me, ‘I thought this was a no-brainer. A conservative issue we should have passed,’” Hager said.
Hager said he believed the GOP caucus was more conservative than the leadership: “Most of our caucus is conservative in general,” he said. “I think if we would have gotten it to the floor it would have passed.”
He is hoping that the next House speaker will embody and emphasize conservative principles.
“I’m not running for speaker. I haven’t even thought about it,” said Hager, who is the House majority whip. “I probably won’t even think about it until sometime next year.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.