Nemitz Column: Maine voters to CMP, Avangrid and Iberdrola: Can you hear us now?

Portland Press Herald

Tuesday’s landslide passage of Question 1 offers many takeaways, but none so loud as the one for Central Maine Power Co.: No scare tactic is safe to touch. Evah.

“With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue,” vowed Jon Breed, executive director of the deep-pocketed political action committee Clean Energy Matters. As he spoke, a tidal wave of voter anger swept over the CMP-backed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project.

He’s right. The fight now goes to the courts, where CMP, its parent companies – Connecticut-based Avangrid and Spain-based Iberdrola – and Lord knows who else will battle to save the proposed $1 billion, 145-mile hydropower transmission line from the Quebec border to electricity-hungry Massachusetts.

Still, Maine has spoken. With all but a handful of ballots counted, 59 percent of voters told CMP and its allies that their $67 million spent opposing Question 1 was, in the end, a fool’s errand.

How did it break so one-sidedly? Theories abound – from the project’s environmental impact to a nagging sense that Maine, in return for letting the 1,200 megawatts of power run through its backyard, would be compensated with what felt like chump change.

But heading into this week, two other insurmountable hurdles stood tall.

First, Mainers in recent years have rated CMP somewhere between a pain in the derriere and a tooth abscess. Years of awful service, unbridled arrogance and unrivaled inefficiency rendered the utility powerless when it came to convincing the citizenry that what was good for CMP was also good for them.

Second, well aware of surveys and polls that put them in the sub-basement of public opinion, CMP and the rest of the pro-NECEC coalition chose to bluff rather than play a hand that, strong emotions aside, wasn’t all that bad.

The gloom-and-doom warnings about Question 1 only grew more desperate as Election Day approached.

In late summer, seizing on the fact that parts of the referendum were made retroactive to capture the NECEC project, Clean Energy Matters and its partner in provocation, Mainers for Fair Laws, began flooding the mediasphere with predictions that were as unfounded as they were laughable.

“Retroactivity,” they warned, would give legislators “new power” – even though it wouldn’t. It would lead to the state shutting down small businesses far and wide – except it does no such thing. And in a stunning leap from common sense to pure paranoia, Mainers for Fair Laws put out a pre-Halloween mailer screeching that “Question 1 establishes a scary precedent for gun grabbers.” No surprise that one blew up in their face.

What made it all so pathetic – not to mention wasteful – is that a compelling case could have been made for NECEC. One that at least tried to overcome parochial concerns about Maine being Massachusetts’ doormat by lauding the role hydropower can play in warding off the worst-case scenarios of climate change.

Would it have worked? We’ll never know. Did the scare tactics, springing from a utility most Mainers already despised, all but guarantee Tuesday’s outcome? Without a doubt.

One explanation for Question 1’s success might be found in what’s known as the “Ultimatum Game.” It’s an oft-repeated psychological experiment, rooted in economics but also apropos to politics:

Two people are seated opposite each other. One is given something of value – say $100 – to share with the other. The holder of the money, the “presenter,” must decide how much to give the one with nothing, whom we’ll call the “accepter.” But there’s a catch: If the presenter offers too little, the accepter can refuse – in which case neither gets a nickel.

Common sense would dictate that the accepter welcome any offer – some money, however little, being better than no money. But in practice, the notion of fairness intrudes on the transaction: Faced with a blatantly unfair distribution of the cash, the accepter is more likely to nix the whole deal simply to wreak revenge on the presenter.

Here in Maine, voters stood to benefit – at least indirectly – from 1,200 megawatts of electricity flowing onto the New England grid. They also would have gained – at least incrementally – from the $258 million offered by NECEC for rate relief to low-income families, rebates for electric vehicles and subsidies for both heat pumps and broadband expansion.

Yet by a whopping majority, they said no to all of it. Many saw the NECEC benefits package as a bribe – and a paltry one at that. They found the relentless ads not just irksome but an insult to our collective intelligence. And from CMP to its parent company, Avangrid, to its international parent conglomerate, Iberdrola, Mainers seemed tired of not just being ignored all these years but being treated like a mere speed bump on Iberdrola’s road to billions in newfound profits.

In short, an overwhelming majority of Maine voters bristled at the unfairness of it all.

To be sure, the pro-Question 1 crowd had its dalliances with deception. Characterizations of the region in question as “pristine wilderness” belied the fact that much of it long has been, and long will be, a commercial forest. Some two-thirds of the project route, rather than bulldozing through untouched landscape, would run parallel to existing transmission lines.

But those hiccups paled by comparison to the bill of goods NECEC backers sold – and will now try to sell to the courts – in pursuit of their 10-figure bonanza.

As one voter, speaking for many, put it to Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel outside a Yarmouth polling place Tuesday, it was CMP’s “fear tactics and misrepresentations,” along with its years of mismanagement, that prompted him to vote “yes” on halting the NECEC project.

Despite that vote, that project goes on. Their electoral bluffs having failed to scare Maine into submission, Iberdrola and company will now proceed with the riskiest of bets – that with a little help from the courts, the hundreds of millions and counting they’ve already poured into NECEC will not be in vain.

We’ll see about that. For now, all that’s certain is a rare vote that united virtually all of Maine. A vote that, when the dust cleared, wasn’t really about power.

It was about punishment.

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  • Sandra Howard
    published this page in News 2021-11-04 06:01:29 -0400