Over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, a Senate committee approved legislation Wednesday to end the state’s 6-year-old renewable energy program.
Opponents of the bill shouted “No!” when voting to show their frustration at Republican Chairman Bill Rabon’s refusal to count votes with a show of hands. In what was clearly a razor-thin margin, both sides said they would have won if the votes had been counted.
“North Carolina is not a banana republic,” Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh, one of the no votes, said after the meeting. “That was no way to run a proceeding.”
It was also evident that the Republicans are split on the legislation that would end a state policy of requiring electric utilities to buy green electricity from solar farms and other renewable generators.
At least a half-dozen Republicans voted with Democrats against the controversial bill Wednesday. Supporters say the program has created new jobs and generated economic activity.
Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican from Mocksville, who voted to kill the state renewables program, joked afterward that the nays voted so loudly because they must have confused that day’s legislative proceeding with the “Spivey’s Corner Hollerin’ Contest.”
But in a subsequent meeting of the full Senate, Democratic Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr. of Buncombe County, another no vote, told his colleagues about the committee vote and voiced his displeasure.
“It looks very bad to the public,” Nesbitt said. “And it clearly appears to the public that the vote was called the wrong way.”
The Senate bill, which had languished for nearly six weeks, now moves to the commerce committee. Supporters need to get the bill to the House side by May 16 to keep the legislation alive for this session.
The bill, which is closely watched by 16 national and state conservative organizations, has become a measure of party discipline. The American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and The Heartland Institute are among the organizations pushing to make North Carolina a testing ground for rolling back policies that favor renewable energy.
The ideological dispute is over North Carolina’s 2007 law requiring electric utilities to use solar power and other forms of renewable energy, up to 12.5 percent of total retail sales in 2021 and thereafter.
The law allows power companies to pass on extra costs to customers. As a result, Duke Energy residential customers pay 22 cents a month and Progress Energy customers pay 42 cents a month for the renewables subsidies.
The Senate version of the legislation caps the requirement at 3 percent and eliminates the mandate in 2023. Critics say such policies interfere with free markets and inflate the cost of living.
The contentious vote in the Senate finance committee Wednesday was preceded by a 45-minute debate and public comment, during which farmers, the N.C. Pork Council and N.C. Farm Bureau urged senators to keep the current policy in place. They contended it’s encouraging investment in projects that use methane from swine waste lagoons as a fuel to generate electricity.
One conservative who was unmoved by that plea was Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina director for the Arlington, Va.-based Americans for Prosperity.
“As George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘A government that robs Peter to pay Paul will always have the support of Paul,’ and that’s what we had here today: Paul,” Woodhouse said.
A similar bill was defeated 18-13 in a House committee last week. Its sponsor, Rep. Mike Hager, attended the Senate debate, watching intently and conferring with lawmakers and Senate staff. Hager has vowed to keep bringing up his bill for a revote in the House Committee on Public Utilities and Energy, which he chairs.
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