Maine Media Ignore PUC Story
The state Public Utilities Commission does things that affect nearly every person in Maine. I doubt the same could be said about the search committee for a new University of Maine women’s basketball coach.
But on April 6, much of the news media devoted considerable space to the latter and almost nothing to the former. (You’ll have to scroll down in the previous link, because the PUC item is relegated to space below reports on bills dealing with lobster-trap storage, whoopie pies, and legalizing switchblades for one-armed people.)
The governor’s choice of a new commissioner to oversee phone service, electrical distribution, and water rates ought to be a matter of interest to most people, but from the time Gov. Paul LePage nominated Thomas Welch for the job in mid-March through the legislative hearing on his fitness for the position to his confirmation vote in the state Senate, no reporter has done anything that looks remotely like journalism. Instead, virtually every media outlet in the state has relied on the Associated Press to churn out short rewrites of press releases from the governor’s office.
This neglect might be slightly more understandable if Welch was a dry academic or a wonky technician with little political baggage. But he’s not. He’s a lawyer and a former PUC chairman under three governors. And he has a track record that might have been of interest to the public, particularly before he was confirmed and sworn in.
A quick check of the archives shows that under Welch’s leadership (1993-2005), the PUC pursued policies – including a failed attempt to encourage competition among electricity suppliers – that have been blamed for higher rates for the state’s small businesses and homeowners. Since lowering power bills is one of LePage’s major goals, it seems as if some enterprising reporter could have asked a few penetrating questions about this apparent conflict.
According to a press release from LePage’s office, Welch “played a leading role in the adoption of incentive regulation for Maine’s major telephone utility.” I have no idea what that means, and I’ll bet most journalists are nearly as ignorant. But if that’s the highest praise the governor can muster for his nominee, there might be a news hook lurking somewhere behind a clear explanation.
Since Francis X. Quinn left the AP’s State House bureau in 2009, no reporter has paid close attention to the PUC (although the Portland Press Herald’s Tux Turkel makes sporadic attempts). That lack of coverage means important debate and decisions on utility matters are taking place out of public view, coming to wider attention only when the results cause problems.
Re-establishing some regular scrutiny over the PUC ought to be a priority for any responsible news organization in this state.
Even if that means less coverage of the new UMaine women’s basketball coach.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.