Philip Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, speaks with reporters at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on July 16, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Regulators on Tuesday denied the Maine public advocate’s emergency request for a $75 electric bill credit in January for low-income ratepayers.

The three commissioners of the Maine Public Utilities Commission unanimously denied the request for the credit for all low-income customers enrolled in the commission’s Low-Income Assistance Program, saying they did not have the statutory authority to grant it.

Public Advocate William Harwood asked the commission on Dec. 9 for the credit for the 70,000 low-income customers enrolled in the program. It was to offset the first three months of the approximately $25 per month rate increases by both Central Maine Power and Versant Power that will take effect in January.

Commission Chair Philip Bartlett said he shares concerns about rising rates and the ability of Mainers to pay them, but said his agency cannot approve a credit for certain customers, especially without a specific plan for how to pay for it.

“Essentially what we’re being asked to do is akin to racking up credit card debt with no plan to pay it off,” Bartlett said when ruling on the public advocate’s request. “The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we would be giving a benefit to one group today and charging other ratepayers later.”

Commissioner Patrick Scully said tens if not hundreds of thousands of ratepayers are not eligible for the low-income program and are still struggling to pay their bills. The commissioners said that instead relief could come from the legislature, which continues to consider a bill that would offer relief checks for most Maine families.

Harwood said he was disappointed and puzzled by the commission’s decision and added his office would look for other ways to get low-income families some relief from the price increases.

“The [commission] is interpreting the law to indicate it doesn’t have the authority to do this, but it’s no different from the emergency payments that were approved last year,” Harwood said.

Bartlett said last year’s approved credit for $90 was different because it was funded by outside resources, not by ratepayers. The cost of that $8 million program was paid by the Maine State Housing Authority using the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.