PORTLAND — Cumberland County Superior Court issued a decision on March 8 rejecting Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ wording of the ballot question regarding the Our Power referendum, which would replace Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant with a consumer-owned, nonprofit utility.
The ballot language read, “Do you want to create a new quasi-governmental power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?”
The decision found that the Secretary’s phrasing, particularly the use of the term “quasi-governmental” to describe the consumer-owned utility, could be misleading and would likely cause confusion with voters at the polls in November.
State Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) was among the plaintiffs who took issue with the language.
That group also included Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), John Clark, former general manager of Houlton Water Co., and Wayne Jortner, lead petitioner for the Our Power initiative.
“The irony is that [quasi-governmental] actually describes our current utilities: Versant is 100 percent owned by a government — the city of Calgary — and CMP has substantial foreign government ownership,” Grohoski said. “Unlike CMP and Versant, the Pine Tree Power Company will not be allowed to have government ownership nor government employees.
“CMP and Versant are spending oodles on ads to confuse and distract us while they’re asking for 30 percent rate increases at the Public Utilities Commission. Certainly, I wouldn’t trust CMP or Versant to be honest or have our best interests in mind!”
The legislation describes Pine Tree Power Company — the proposed new consumer-owned utility company — as “body corporate and politic.” However, Judge MaryGay Kennedy’s decision stated that “...it is unreasonable to expect an average voter to draw the connection between the use of the phrase ‘body corporate and politic’ in the legislation and ‘quasi-governmental’ in the ballot question and emerge with a clear understanding of either phrase.”
The petitioners argued that the phrase “quasi- governmental” is misleading, as it “...suggests [Pine Tree Power Company] would be funded by taxpayers, rather than consumers.”
“To a voter who did not understand the meaning of ‘quasi-governmental,’ it might, in fact, appear to mean the opposite of ‘consumer-owned,’” according to the written decision. “Thus, the question creates a risk that voters will be led to vote contrary to their true intention.”
Our Power is a group of Maine business owners, rate payers, conservationists and others “committed to putting the Pine Tree State’s energy future in the hands of Mainers.” The group advocates for transferring control of Maine’s power transmission and distribution from Central Maine Power and Versant into the hands of Pine Tree Power Company, which will be a not-for-profit, consumer-owned utility governed by a board of directors.
Both Central Maine Power and Versant are investor-owned utilities (IOUs), meaning they are managed by shareholders with the goal to make a profit.
The courts would determine the acquisition price if the measure were to pass. Opponents say the takeover would incur $13.5 billion in debt.
Proponents say the figure would be much lower, and that savings would be achieved because Pine Tree Power would qualify to borrow funds at lower interest rates, reducing the cost of capital expenses.
Advocates for switching to consumer-owned utilities in Maine say the cost to consumers is far cheaper long term than that of investor-owned utilities. Also that consumer-owned utility companies invest in improvements and environmentally friendly energy practices at higher rates than their investor counterparts, as they do not aim to make a profit from the services they provide.
Those who favor investor-owned utilities argue that the competitive nature of for-profit entities leads to innovation and efficiency, and that the power companies have invested in upgrades. Versant Power recently acquired a building permit for a $44 million expansion of the Boggy Book Substation in Ellsworth to enhance “performance and reliability,” according to the company.
If voters decide to switch to a consumer-owned utility, Our Power estimates it would take three to four years to complete the transfer process completely.
The judge remanded the issue of the ballot language to the Secretary of State’s Office so that the question can be revised “in a manner consistent with this decision.”
Lizzie Heintz is the downtown Ellsworth reporter. She is a dual-national American/British citizen, and got her Bachelor of Science in journalism from Emerson College in 2021 with a minor in photography and a multimedia focus. She welcomes tips and suggestions on any Ellsworth stories.