By Kevin Miller
Portland Press Herald
AUGUSTA — Governor Janet Mills vetoed a bill proposing a forced buyout of Maine’s two largest electric utilities on Tuesday, saying the controversial measure was rushed through the legislative process and could create more problems than it solves.
Absent a seismic shift in votes, Mills’ veto will at least delay the years-long campaign to create a consumer-owned utility to supply electricity to more than 90 percent of Maine homeowners and businesses. The vote tallies in both the Maine House and Senate last month were well short of the two-thirds majorities needed to override Mills’ veto.
“I am disappointed that Governor Mills has sided with the foreign profiteers of CMP and Versant over Maine people,” said Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), a co-sponsor of the bill. “Over the last three years, a broad coalition of legislators, utility experts, economists and conservationists worked together on this proposal to allow Maine people to restore control of our energy future. The bill, LD 1708, was carefully crafted and gained bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.”
Supporters have already begun laying the groundwork for a statewide referendum potentially on the ballot next year. Unlike the bill to create a consumer-owned utility, Mills could not block a citizen’s initiative on the issue.
“Citizens are already gearing up for a 2022 ballot initiative to create a safe, reliable and affordable utility for our state,” Grohoski said. “I will join their efforts to transition our profit-driven, investor-owned utilities to one driven by the needs of all Mainers.”
In her veto message, Mills called the recent performance of Maine’s utilities “abysmal” and said that “it may well be that the time has come for the people of the state of Maine to retake control over the [utilities’] assets.”
However, she said the bill was “hastily drafted and hastily amended in recent weeks without robust public participation (and) is a patchwork of political promises rather than a methodical reformation of Maine’s complicated electrical transmission and distribution system.”
Late last month, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that would require Central Maine Power and Versant Power to sell their assets to a newly created consumer-owned utility. Supporters contend the elected board of the proposed Pine Tree Power Company would prioritize Maine ratepayers rather than company shareholders and be more responsive to the state’s push toward renewable energy.
Jeremy Kennedy, Mills’ chief of staff, outlined some of those concerns in a June 14 memo sent to lawmakers. They included: potential impacts on local property taxes and related school funding levels, who will take over day-to-day operations of the new utility, the composition and governance of the Pine Tree Power board and how the forced sale through eminent domain would be carried out.
Lawmakers sought to address the concerns about lost property taxes by amending the bill just before final passage to make it clear that the consumer-owned utility would still have to pay property taxes to cities and towns. Additionally, supporters point out that Maine residents would have the ultimate say over whether to move forward with a consumer-owned utility because the bill would send the issue to a voters in a statewide ballot question this fall.
But Kennedy wrote in his memo that holding a referendum “does not absolve the Legislature of its duty to evaluate the pros and cons of such a consequential bill.”
“The Legislature needs to perform due diligence and understand the variety of impacts, before asking the voters to weigh in on such a complex and significant measure,” Kennedy wrote.
Both CMP and Versant strongly oppose the measure and have predicted a protracted — and costly — legal battle should it become law.