(The Center Square) – Gov. Janet Mills has rejected a proposal that would have barred foreign corporations from spending money to sway Maine voters on public referendums.
The legislation would have prohibited companies that are 10% or more foreign-owned from spending on political advertising for statewide ballot questions. The move was aimed at Hydro-Quebec's efforts to promote construction of a 145-mile hydropower transmission line, which the Canadian company is developing with Central Maine Power, Maine's largest utility.
But Mills said the restrictions would have unfairly impacted dozens of businesses "that we regard as very much part of the fabric of the Maine community."
"Entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers," Mills wrote in her budget message to lawmakers. "Legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered change of ideas, information and opinion."
The Democrat says she was even more troubled by the proposal's potential impact on voters, noting that the government is rarely justified in restricting such information.
"The theory is that what these entities have to say is categorically inappropriate for consideration; that it is somehow tainted, should be declared interference and that voters must be shielded from it," Mills wrote. "That is a theory I reject."
Backers of the proposal criticized Mills' veto, saying her rejection will allow foreign corporations to continue pouring money into campaigns aimed at swaying Maine voters.
"Governor Janet Mills was faced with a very important decision – continue to allow a dangerous loophole in Maine's election law to exist, or swiftly close it," Sandi Howard, of the No CMP Corridor PAC, which opposes the project. "Unfortunately, she again sided with foreign governments over the voters of this state."
Howard called on lawmakers, who are currently meeting in an extended special session, to override the governor's veto.
Backers of the project said a ban would cut off a vital source of funding to promote the plan to provide up to 1,200 megawatts of Canadian Hydro power to the New England region.
The companies say the project will create jobs, help green the regional power grid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.
They claim that opposition to the hydropower corridor is being funded mostly by the fossil fuel industry, with the intent of killing green energy projects.
Opponents say it will carve through scenic swathes of forest in the North Maine Woods, damaging the environment and leading to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.
Both sides have waged a costly and bitter public relations war for several years over the details of the project, and whether it will negatively impact the state and its ratepayers.
Political observers expect a crush of spending on advertising from both sides ahead of a November ballot question that seeks to kill the project.
That referendum, which was certified by the secretary of state's office, is subject to a lawsuit seeking to split the question into three different referendums.