CMP requests rate hike as PAC spends millions opposing corridor referendum

Maine Beacon

As Central Maine Power requests approval for a storm-related rate hike of $26.5 million, reports shows that a PAC listing CMP as a founding organization has spent nearly $20 million pushing back against efforts to create a consumer-owned utility in Maine and opposing a referendum seeking to halt a controversial transmission line being built on CMP land. 

According to the disclosure made to the Maine Ethics Commission, the Clean Energy Matters PAC — which lists CMP and NECEC Transmission, LLC as its founding organizations — has garnered a little over $66 million in contributions and loans and has spent about $19.5 million dating back to 2019, including about $4.6 million so far in 2021. As of Friday morning, the PAC disclosure showed a little over $22 million in contributions and loans but that number jumped to $66 million Friday evening. 

The PAC states its mission as advocating for “utility industry matters,” including opposing a “government takeover of publicly regulated utilities.” That appears to be a reference to legislation to create a consumer-owned utility.  

It also includes in its mission opposition to a ballot initiative meant to stop CMP’s corridor project, which would ferry hydropower from Quebec through Maine and into the electrical grid in Massachusetts. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows recently announced that the ballot measure — which would ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and require legislative approval for other such projects in Maine, retroactive to 2014 — has attained enough signatures to receive a statewide vote in November. Bellows’ office has put forward proposed language for the initiative, and public comment on the wording is being accepted until 5 p.m. on May 13. 

While proponents of the corridor have said the project would be an economic and clean energy boon, opponents have pushed back against those claims. 

“Throughout the permitting process, CMP hasn’t been honest about the economic impact of the corridor and we now know that ratepayers will not benefit from reduced power bills; it will not reduce carbon emissions and it will have a profound and lasting negative impact on Maine’s environment,” the group No CMP Corridor PAC wrote on its website.  

In an interview, Sandi Howard, principal officer of No CMP Corridor PAC, said the strategy for the upcoming referendum will be to emphasize that an affirmative vote on the ballot initiative is a stand against the corridor. 

“We’re all about ‘vote yes to reject the CMP corridor,’” she said. 

Against the backdrop of that referendum campaign, Howard criticized CMP — which is owned by Avangrid, a subsidiary of the Spanish multinational company Iberdrola for pursuing a rate hike, saying the company “expects Mainers to pay more for worst-in-the-nation service” while it puts millions into a campaign to promote the corridor project. 

“It’s no wonder CMP is the lowest rated utility in America,” Howard said in a news release. 

‘It’s turned out to be kind of a flawed model’

In its recent request to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which the commission is currently reviewing, CMP said it needed to recoup costs from five major storms in 2020. The company’s request would amount to a rate increase of about 9.6%, or a little less than $3 a month for the average bill, News Center Maine reported.

CMP is asking that the cost be spread over three years, which the utility said is “designed to mitigate the rate impacts to customers.” In addition, the Portland Press Herald reported that the company will be sending other financial information to the PUC over the next couple months, with a CMP spokesperson telling the newspaper that what, if any, rate increase there may ultimately be won’t be determined until all that information has been submitted.

“CMP believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between minimizing near-term bill impacts and creating long-term deferrals that may create pricing challenges in the future,” the company wrote in its recent memo to the PUC, which is part of the annual rate adjustment petition CMP makes. 

However, state Sen. Richard Bennett (R-Oxford) slammed the company’s proposal, which he said comes as Mainers have experienced some of the worst power reliability in the country, often in CMP areas of the state. 

“I frankly think it’s appalling that they are now saying, ‘We need money, a rate increase, to do the job for which we’re already being paid,’” Bennett said.

The Maine Republican argued that “it’s turned out to be kind of a flawed model having investor-owned utilities, particularly one that is so divorced from the interests of Mainers.” 

Bennett added that he’s “very actively” examining whether to support legislation that would create a consumer-owned utility, which advocates say would generate more reliable service than utilities that are driven by profit and would generally be cheaper for consumers. 

In addition to that issue, Bennett is also wading into the politics around CMP and the corridor with a bill he’s introduced that would ban any company that a foreign government owns 10% or more of from conducting electioneering on Maine ballot referendums. If passed, the measure would curtail the ability of Hydro-Quebec, which is fully owned by Quebec, from spending on the ballot question to halt the CMP corridor.

The measure recently took a step forward, with the legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee approving the bill Friday.  

Bennett said the legislation is not specific to the CMP corridor project and Hydro-Quebec, noting that he opposes any foreign corporations and governments pursuing electioneering on issues in Maine. However, he said the debate around the CMP corridor — which Hydro-Quebec has spent millions promoting — “has exposed a lot of weaknesses in our democracy that we ought to focus on fixing.” 

Bennett added that Maine already bans foreign involvement in candidate elections and that Canada has banned foreign entities from spending in its elections. Given that, Bennett said it doesn’t make sense to allow foreign companies and governments to influence the state’s ballot initiatives. 

“It seems to me that this [loophole] needs to be closed,” he said.  

Photo: Say No to NECEC, Facebook

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-04-19 13:19:25 -0400