Mainers have long had a love-hate relationship with Central Maine Power Co. – more often the latter – and this year’s legislative session marks another chapter in a marriage that may still avoid divorce. 

The company that engineer Walter Wyman began putting together in 1899 is a dominant utility in a small state, serving four of five Mainers. It’s weathered many crises before, including numerous referendum challenges. 

CMP convinced voters to reject a state public power authority in 1973. It survived three attempts to close Maine Yankee, in 1980, 1982 and 1987. 

Last year, an attempt to block a new power line to Quebec was scuttled by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, because, the court said, it failed to present an actual piece of legislation. 

It’s not as if CMP hasn’t provided fuel for the fire. Its last two presidents, Sara Burns and Doug Herling, left under fire, though the company said “retired,” and the press adopted the term. 

Burns, after serving nearly 20 years, stepped down shortly after CMP’s disastrous response to an October 2017 windstorm during which Burns praised the company’s response even as restoration planning devolved into chaos. 

Herling left June 3, dogged by bizarre failures of a new computer billing system that were never adequately explained, though they were eventually fixed. Even as a CMP vice president touted the new system at an industry convention, customers got bills charging up to 10 times their normal usage. 

Burns’s predecessor, David Flanagan, has returned as executive chairman to restore order. Whether his efforts are sufficient will be determined by two current bills. 

The first involves a new referendum aimed at the “Clean Energy Connect.” Record spending and hundreds of news stories attended last year’s effort. 

This time, there’s a curious silence. The last public notice came when petitions were certified Feb. 22. 

The Legislature held no hearing on the initiated bill, LD 1295 – not required, but usually requested. 

The Senate unanimously rejected the bill on May 19, meaning it’s slated for the Nov. 2 ballot. There was nary a press release or news brief. 

At this point, its prospects are uncertain. 

The new referendum is definitely legislation, but iffy on other counts. The high court’s concerns about separation of powers, and new requirements for retroactivity – in one provision, back to 2014 – could doom it; we’ll likely find out this summer. 

Now, all eyes turn to LD 1708, Rep. Seth Berry’s bill to create a new public power authority to acquire the assets both CMP and Versant, Maine’s other privately owned electric utility. 

Berry, who’s emerged as CMP’s most persistent critic, achieved a surprisingly strong vote at the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, where he’s House chair. 

The key convert is Senate chair Mark Lawrence, whose legislative career dates to 1988. Lawrence was won over by the bill’s provision for – you guessed it – a statewide referendum. 

This is a thin reed; referring such a hugely complex bill to voters implies that, somehow, they’ll make a better decision those elected to represent them. 

There’s the further problem that no private utility has been converted to public ownership since the New Deal era. We just don’t have much of a blueprint. 

The bill has been criticized for relying on a private operator to run the new Pine Tree Power Co. Municipalities worry that payments in lieu of the property taxes CMP is now assessed won’t materialize. 

And the role of the Public Utilities Commissions, which would presumably regulate the new entity, is also unclear – though it would create the succession plan. 

In the end, it’s the governance structure that Gov. Janet Mills is questioning that may be decisive. 

Give supporters credit for a new exercise in democracy. The utility would have an elected seven-member board, each chosen by voters of five of the 35 Senate districts – who in turn will choose four “expert members.” 

It may not be a solution in search of a problem, but it certainly raises more questions than it answers. 

Maine has few statewide elections – just governor and U.S. Senate. Unlike most states, it doesn’t elect an attorney general, secretary of state or treasurer; the Legislature jealously guards that responsibility. 

Now, we’d choose politicians charged with guiding us into an all-renewable energy future. 

One can imagine campaign battles making the jousting over Hydro Quebec seem mild. Though candidates would be eligible for Clean Election funding, there’s no requirement to forgo private money. 

In all, it’s a daunting task. Yet one veteran lobbyist told me he’d never see a bill like this one get this close to passage. It should be a fight to the finish, well worth watching. 

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit the website, https://douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail: [email protected] 

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