09/18/2012 07:00 EDT | Updated 11/18/2012 05:12 EST

N.S. government promises legislation to deal with rising electricity bills

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government says it's poised to respond to a public backlash over rising electricity rates.

Energy Minister Charlie Parker, in remarks prepared for a public meeting Tuesday, revealed the government will introduce legislation to limit the amount taxpayers must contribute to executive salaries at Nova Scotia Power Inc., the province's privately owned electric utility.

"We are dealing with the fallout of bad decisions by previous governments, and Nova Scotians, rightly so, are asking for measures that help them today," Parker said in a submission to the Nova Scotia Utility Review Board.

"Many Nova Scotians, particularly those on fixed incomes, have voiced concern about the executive salaries paid by the privatized utility. I agree."

Parker said the new law will ensure the taxpayer-funded portion will be capped to keep executive salaries at a level comparable with senior public servants — though there were no details on what those levels would be.

Nova Scotia Power shareholders will pay the difference between the public- and private-sector portions, a move that will save Nova Scotians hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, Parker said.

In May, documents released online showed Rob Bennett, CEO Nova Scotia Power Inc., saw his total compensation package rise to $1.15 million last year, up from $934,212 the previous year.

Chris Huskilson, CEO of Nova Scotia Power's parent company, Emera Inc., earned $747,115 in salary last year. But once share options and pension contributions were added, his total compensation climbed to $2.99 million, slightly up from $2.96 million in 2010.

Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the proposed changes mark a step forward, but he criticized Premier Darrell Dexter for moving too slowly.

"I'm wondering where they've been for the past year as Nova Scotians have been crying out for these kinds of things," he said in an interview.

"It seems like a knee-jerk reaction to what's happening to our power rates ... Nova Scotians deserve better than policy that's made on the fly like this."

Baillie said the Conservatives have introduced five bills aimed at reducing electricity bills, including measures that would eliminate executive bonuses, review the utility's guaranteed return on equity and require the rate increases to be approved by the legislature.

As well, Parker announced the province will put an end to what he called "the constant parade of (electricity) rate hearings."

Each round of Utility Review Board hearings typically costs up to $2 million.

Parker said new legislation will ensure there are no further rate increases before 2015, and that future rate applications submitted by Nova Scotia Power must span more than one year.

Again, Parker's submission offered few other details.

The regulator has already decided that taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of executive incentives in 2012, a move Parker described as a temporary fix.

The minister said the NDP government will introduce legislation to make this practice permanent.

An agreement-in-principle between Nova Scotia Power and stakeholders reached Friday means consumers face three per cent increases in each of the next two years.

Consumer advocate John Merrick says under the deal rates should stay about the same in the following eight years.