Two possible referendum questions and a court defeat have Maine’s largest utility in a difficult position.Advocates of an electric utility takeover took a long-teased step on Monday to launch a referendum bid after the measure they championed passed the Legislature earlier this year but then fell to Gov. Janet Mills’ veto pen. If supporters can get just over 63,000 signatures, the question of borrowing billions against future revenue to buy out the infrastructure of Maine’s two dominant utilities and putting Maine’s electricity in control of an elected board would go to voters as soon as November 2022.
It comes as Central Maine Power Co. — the focus of utility critics’ ire since billing and service issues emerged a few years ago — has increasingly less control over its destiny. Last week, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said it may suspend its permit for the $1 billion hydropower corridor after a judge ruled that state leases over public land were invalid.
That ruling, which could lead to the corridor being rerouted and backers having to reapply for permits, may be an even bigger threat to the project than an anti-corridor referendum coming before Maine voters this November. When you add that to the specter of back-to-back referendum questions striking at the heart of CMP’s business, the road gets harder.
CMP has options. It and Versant Power, the state’s other big electric utility, have threatened lawsuits against the state if such a takeover passes. They would likely fight over the state’s authority to seize their assets and the price. At the very least, it would draw things out. Voters may see overhauling utility regulation as a more difficult sell than trying to stop the corridor.
But before last week, CMP had locked down the regulatory process to get the corridor permitted and its army of lobbyists used support from the Democratic governor and enough lawmakers to turn back bills posing threats. They have less control now that the process is in the legal and political realms and that is starting to show.