Home efficiency or direct aid? Greenhouse gas tax money in dispute

By Erich Wagner

The House and Senate are at odds over whether it’s best to help residents pay their energy bills by sending direct aid, or by offering cash to help make homes more efficient.

The House Appropriations Committee wants to use more of the money from a regional tax on greenhouse gas emissions to pay for the weatherization of homes. But the Senate has voted to send most of the money directly to ratepayers and right away.

House Transportation and the Environment Subcommittee Chair Tawanna Gaines said her panel wants to ensure the state meets a goal set in 2008 to become more energy efficient by 2020 through retrofitting buildings to use less energy. That goal was set by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — RGGI, reggie for short — an interstate agreement to charge power producers for some emissions.

She acknowledged that both direct assistance and efficiency need to be funded.

“You have to have utilities on before you can get the retrofitting done,” Gaines said. “You have to find a balance there.”

The Senate version of the budget extends a change in plans for the RGGI money so that most of the money goes to direct energy bill assistance. The original plan was to send half of the money to direct assistance and half to weatherization of homes, but lawmakers voted last year to send more of the cash to ratepayers.

The diversion of funds was offset using federal stimulus money last year, but environmentalists fear that when the stimulus funds dry up, efficiency money will do the same.

Tommy Landers, an advocate for Environment Maryland, applauded the decision, saying funding for retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient creates jobs and saves more money for consumers in the long run than direct assistance in paying energy bills.

Direct assistance “doesn’t do anything beyond that one blip of savings to help either reduce pollution, energy usage, stress on the grid or even put people to work,” Landers said. “Companies have told me that, through retrofitting, they’ve been able to reduce energy bills by hundreds of dollars per month.”

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