FRANKFORT — A controversial bill which would significantly reduce payments for excess power generated by residential solar panels escaped the Natural Resources and Energy Committee Thursday.

House Bill 227, sponsored by the committee’s chairman and champion of the coal industry, Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, was called for a vote without discussion after House leadership granted Gooch’s request to add three new members.

The committee had discussed the bill in two previous meetings, but it was never called for a vote. The bill would cut in half the reimbursement from utilities for power they buy back from solar panel owners.

Tom Fitzgerald, who heads the Kentucky Resource Council and who opposes the bill, last week publicly urged House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, R-Prospect, not to “pack” the committee to ensure its passage.

He suggested Gooch didn’t have the necessary 10 votes to pass the bill out of committee, but Gooch claimed he had the votes but wanted more western Kentucky representation on the committee.

Osborne added three members — Republicans Myron Dossett of Pembroke and Robby Mills of Henderson and Democrat Rick Nelson of Middlesboro — but gave a different reason than the one offered by Gooch. He said Gooch requested additional members because he’d sometimes had difficulty getting a quorum for committee meetings.

But Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, who also sits on the committee, criticized Osborne and House leaders on the House floor earlier this week for complying with Gooch’s request.

At Thursday’s committee meeting, Gooch said he’d not called the bill for a vote at the last meeting because the meeting was held following adjournment of the full House “and it had been a long day.”

He complains the current system creates a system where lower income rate payers are subsidizing higher income customers who can afford to install the panels. But he’s also known for invariably supporting the coal industry and utilities which burn coal during his time in the General Assembly.

Utilities support the measure, claiming its reimbursement provisions more fairly account for fixed costs of infrastructure and transmission costs as well as reflecting wholesale prices they pay for other sources of power.

Solar companies and advocates contend the measure will cost jobs in the emerging industry and is designed to benefit utilities at the cost to solar companies and ratepayers. They also claim solar panel users often sell back excess power during periods of peak demand when energy costs are highest.

With the larger committee, bills now need 12 votes for favorable passage, and House Bill 227 got 14 Thursday, including the votes of the two Republicans, Mills and Dossett, added to the committee. Nelson, the Democrat added to the committee, passed.

While all 14 yes votes came from Republicans, some of them expressed doubts about the bill, including a couple who said they might not vote for the bill on the floor unless it’s amended.

Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, said the bill needs amending and he will not vote for it when the full House considers the measure unless it is amended.

Rep. Daniel Elliott, R-Danville, said he intends to offer amendments to the bill. The current measure would allow those already using solar panels to continue at the same rate of reimbursement.

Ellioitt said later he’d like that provision extended to allow anyone installing solar panels before July 2019 to be grandfathered and he’d like a smaller reduction in the reimbursement rate.

Both Dossett and Mills said they were offended by suggestions they were added to the committee to ensure the bill’s passage. Dossett said his district includes recently closed mines and he was voting to support miners and their families.

Mills said Henderson is the home to Big Rivers Electric Coop and home to coal miners who work in neighboring counties.

Democrat McKenzie Cantrell of Louisville questioned taking a vote without further discussion as well as “the process,” presumably referring to taking the vote only after new members were added to the committee.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, argued the vote was counter to the need to diversify Kentucky’s economy and energy portfolio.

“We’re bringing a sledgehammer to this diversifying economy at a time when this state is proud of having an economy based on energy,” she said.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.

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