A bill once aimed at dismantling Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power and replacing them with a consumer-owned public utility has been converted into a proposal to create a task force to study that possibility.

In an 8-1 vote Friday, the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee approved an amendment that struck all the language of the original bill, replaced it with an amended version and forwarded the new bill to the full Legislature.

The amendment, offered by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, would set up a 13-member task force with nine voting members from the public appointed by the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills. The panel also would include four non-voting members from the Legislature, Berry said when presenting the amendment during a work session on the bill, L.D. 1646.

“I propose that we do not commit to going forward, just yet, with a consumer-owned utility,” Berry said. He said he instead believes the Legislature should “conduct the due diligence” that was proposed in another amendment before the committee.

The move is a change of course for Berry, who for more than two years has been pushing to do away with Maine’s privately owned and operated electric utilities, CMP and Versant, formerly Emera Maine, and replacing them with a consumer-owned utility.

Berry said one in three American households gets its energy from a consumer-owned utility, including customers of a handful of such utilities in Maine.

Berry and supporters of the public takeover have said it would save consumers billions of dollars, improve service and keep control of the power grid in the hands of Maine people instead of foreign-owned corporations, with loyalties only to their shareholders – including the governments of Qatar and Norway, which own shares in CMP’s parent company Iberdrola.

Under Berry’s original proposal, a new entity with an elected board of directors, dubbed the Maine Power Delivery Authority, would take over CMP and Versant, the state’s only two privately owned electric power delivery companies. In 1997, the Legislature passed a law that deregulated Maine’s electricity system and forced companies such as CMP to divest their generation facilities.

Berry’s original proposal would have taken that deregulation to the next level by setting up the consumer-owned utility for delivering power.

“This task force would be formed specifically to advise us on the net benefit of going forward or not going forward,” Berry said.

Backers of the switch say it would bring $9 billion in benefits to Maine consumers and the state’s economy in the first 30 years, largely by stabilizing electricity rates. Supporters also gained a boost in May when one of Maine’s top energy experts, Richard Silkman, chief executive of Competitive Energy Services in Portland, produced research showing that a consultant the Maine Public Utilities Commission hired to evaluate the pros and cons of the authority had failed to highlight $5 billion in financial benefits to consumers. That research was highlighted Tuesday in a news release from the bill’s backers.

But  CMP Executive Chairman David Flanagan called Silkman’s analysis “seriously flawed and unrealistic in its estimate of savings attainable from a government takeover of Maine utilities.”

The task force, Berry said, would include independent experts, not politicians, that would be appointed by the Legislature and Mills. It would function without any added need for public funds.

Those experts would including people from the fields of energy, finance, engineering and labor relations, among others.

The amendment also requires the PUC to conduct a series of inquiries to gather more information on what a consumer-owned utility would look like. The task force also would be charged with forming a transition plan and a business plan for the proposed consumer-owned utility and would return recommendations to the Legislature in November 2021 for possible legislation.

Lawmakers on the committee backing the amendment said they were doing so because they believed it was moving Maine in the best direction for consumers, but also because it would put the power grid in the hands of Maine people, allowing them to create a system that was responsive to industry needs, protective of the state’s environment and supportive of Mills’ long-term goals of making the state a climate change leader.

“I will say it is bittersweet for me,” said Rep. Victoria Doudera, D-Camden. “I’ve been an advocate for the consumer utility from the beginning. I think it is what is needed for our environment, our economy – it keeps the money in Maine. I think ultimately it is much better for our pocketbooks, too, and it is the plan that will help us achieve the governor’s climate goals.”

Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, said the underlying bill, which was introduced nearly two years ago, has received an unprecedented amount of public attention and process including a public hearing that drew testimony from nearly 100 people. Since then, the committee has held a dozen work sessions on the bill, including Friday’s.

“I’ve learned a lot from much of the comment, from much of the analysis that’s been done by experts both paid and unpaid, who truly are dedicated to this state’s future,” she said.

Grohoski said despite that, there still were some misconceptions about what a consumer-owned utility is, and what it is not, noting that many have misunderstood the bill to be a government takeover of private industry. She said the bill as it is currently structured would require a consumer-owned utility to continue to pay local property taxes on its facilities.

“I want to you to know if this bill made a government-run utility, I would not vote for it,” she said. “If this bill was going to use taxpayer funds, I would not vote for it. If this bill was intended to bankrupt municipalities by taking away their tax revenue, I would not vote for it. This bill does none of those things, the original bill did none of those things.”

Still, what happens next remains uncertain, as the Legislature is currently adjourned.

Berry, the House chairman of the committee, has been a vocal critic of CMP and how it has conducted business over the past few years, including its botched rollout of a billing and metering system in launched in 2017.

After the vote Friday, Berry said he wasn’t backing away from his original goal of creating a consumer-owned electric utility to replace CMP.

“But this is a process that will take two or three years to unfold,” he said, adding that the due diligence work that would be assigned to the task force if the bill passes into law was always envisioned as part of the process.

In a statement issued Friday, CMP’s Flanagan echoed some of the concerns voiced by Republican committee members who said the amendment amounted to a brand new bill that should have been subject to an additional public hearing.

“Today the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee voted to prolong the efforts of advocates of a government takeover of Maine’s utilities by passing an entirely new bill without any input or opportunity to be heard by any party, expert, or a member of the public,” Flanagan said. “CMP is committed to open and transparent communications with public policymakers, but is disappointed that the committee provided no opportunity to be heard on their brand new bill before voting on a proposal which is meant to be the first step in a takeover of the electric system at an enormous cost.”


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