As the Legislature concludes its work back at the State House after a long year away, one of the more intriguing remaining issues for them to tackle is the proposal to take over Central Maine Power and Versant and turn them into a consumer-owned utility.

The issue is a fascinating one because it isn’t just driven along ideological and partisan divides, like so many other ones facing the Legislature in its waning days. The actual bill, L.D. 1708, is sponsored by longtime Democratic Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, a liberal and fierce critic of Central Maine Power who’s consistently fought with the company.

It’s no surprise that Berry wants to do away with CMP, nor is it that Senate President Troy Jackson and other liberal Democrats have joined him. What’s surprising is that it’s not just liberal Democrats who have signed on in support of this bill: A few House Republicans have joined them, as has Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, who is a former Senate president and state Republican Party chair.

Given the controversies CMP in particular has weathered over the past couple years, it’s also not a shock that the company has attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle. It is interesting, though, that a number of Republicans would be willing to toss aside conservative principles like small government and private property rights in order to do away with CMP and Versant.

Although its proponents tout it as a consumer-owned utility, in fact the new Pine Tree Power Co. would be a quasi-governmental entity run by a board of directors. The board members wouldn’t be appointed, either, nor is there any requirement for partisan balance at all, as is often the case with government boards in Maine, like the Maine Ethics Commission.

Instead, seven of the 11 board members would be directly elected. They’d even be eligible for Clean Elections funding. That’s right, Republicans who support this bill are essentially voting to expand Clean Elections by allowing taxpayer dollars to be used in more campaigns. The other four would be experts selected by the elected board members; the board of Pine Tree Power could also hire staff. All of that  – plus the use of Clean Elections money for campaigns – amounts to plenty of grifting opportunities for the well-connected.

It’s far too easy to imagine some consultant getting hired by the campaigns of a few of these board members, then immediately getting hired on to some position at Pine Tree Power. Now, that’s hardly unheard of in politics: Many people work on campaigns in order to later land government jobs. Indeed, it’s become common practice at the state and federal level over the years, just as it’s common for the majority party to elect their fellow legislators as constitutional officers in Maine.

Still, the structure of this governing board makes one wonder whether its sponsors truly believe it will perform better for consumers, or whether it will merely provide themselves and their allies a cushy gig after they’ve been forced out of office by term limits. Oh, that’s another thing: There aren’t any term limits on the elected members of the board of Pine Tree Power.

It’s easy for supporters of Pine Tree Power to claim they’re against a monopoly, but that’s not really the case, because the legislation as written doesn’t break one up. Instead, it potentially makes it larger. While it might be easy to bash Central Maine Power these days, there’s no reason to believe that the hypothetical Pine Tree Power would do any better providing the state with cheap, reliable electricity.

Indeed, we’ve seen in the past that the state doesn’t do a great job competing with the private sector. When they ran state liquor stores; they eventually had to shut those down. With that kind of track record, there’s no reason to think that they’ll suddenly hit the nail on the head with utilities.

Even if Pine Tree Power were perfectly well-run and governed, rather than being run by seven elected members who might not know anything at all about energy policy, they might not do any better than CMP or Versant, and could do much worse.

In a decade or two, the Legislature might decide that Pine Tree Power was an expensive, failed experiment and re-privatize, just like they did with liquor stores. Rather than submitting Maine to that risky scheme, state regulators should aggressively work to hold CMP and Versant accountable for their failures.

That’s a realistic way to give our state affordable, clean, consistent electricity.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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