Conflict of interest? VT lawmaker casts vote on employer-lobbied bill

By Jon Street| Watchdog.org

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Rep. Mike McCarthy says a recent vote is not a conflict of interest, although one report suggests McCarthy’s employer lobbied for the proposed legislation several months ago.

In what he describes as a “win-win,” McCarthy, D-St. Albans, says the House-passed bill, which would raise the net-metering limit from 4 percent to 15 percent, would result in a positive outcome for renewable energy installers, such as SunCommon.

McCarthy works for the Vermont-based solar energy company. By increasing the net metering limit to 15 percent, he said, the bill would expand the territory into which it can market and sell solar energy.

The bill has been stalled in the Senate since Jan. 31, where it is not yet scheduled for a vote. If passed by the House and Senate in its current form, Gov. Peter Shumlin could either sign the bill into law or veto it.

In September, SunCommon reportedly raised public concerns over its business losses. According to the Stowe (Vt.) Reporter, the company saw some of its customers cancel their renewable energy projects after those customers learned they would be unable to net-meter because of the existing 4 percent cap. According to the story, SunCommon’s solution was to “lobb(y) its state representatives to increase the 4 percent minimum.”

McCarthy told Vermont Watchdog about a few of SunCommon’s challenges: “So some of the smaller utilities stopped accepting permits for net metering and so all renewable energy installers in the state that do net metering installs, like SunCommon, had to stop installing or marketing …We couldn’t work in those areas. So all of those utility companies said we either can’t or won’t accept net metering renewables until the Legislature tells us that it’s OK.”

That’s exactly what Vermont House has done. It would be wrong, McCarthy said, if the bill went against his constituents and unfairly benefited him or someone associated with him.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, net metering is “a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the public power grid.” Under the system, “customers are only billed for their ‘net’ energy use.”

Campaign for Vermont, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that seeks to promote “common sense” economic solutions, has been a driving force in favor of stricter ethics requirements for lawmakers and administration officials. As recently as Feb. 6, the group threw its support behind a newly introduced ethics bill in the Vermont House.

Vermont Watchdog reached out to Campaign for Vermont for comment, but calls and emails were not returned by time of publication.

When asked whether he would support such a bill, McCarthy said, “I’m all in favor of transparency. I just would really want to be careful from going down a road where we’re limiting teachers from voting on education bills and farmers from voting on farm bills because part of the way that we have a part-time citizen legislature is that we have people who have jobs and are part of our communities participating in the discussions about things that are going to affect them and the industries they work in, broadly.”

Part of that proposed ethics bill would prohibit state lawmakers from “tak(ing) any official action that materially advances the interest of any person with whom he or she is seeking employment.” The same bill would also prohibit lawmakers from “taking any official action in a matter in which he or she has a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Contact Jon Street at jstreet@watchdog.org and find him on Twitter @JonStreet.