AUGUSTA — The Legislature passed a controversial bill Wednesday to create a consumer-owned utility through a forced buyout of Maine’s two largest electricity providers, setting up a potential veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

Roughly two weeks after the bill failed by a single vote, supporters were able to flip several senators after adding a requirement that the new, consumer-owned utility would still have to pay property taxes to cities and towns. But neither the 18-14 vote in the Senate or an earlier 77-68 vote in the House would be enough to override a veto from Mills, who has expressed numerous reservations about the bill.

Wednesday’s Senate reversal was nonetheless a major victory for supporters, who have accused the parent companies of Central Maine Power and Versant Power of prioritizing investors at the expense of Maine consumers.

“With this historic action, we are calling for the chance to let Maine people decide our own energy future – the chance for more affordable, more reliable, cleaner and Maine-operated power and greater connectivity throughout Maine,” Rep. Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat who has led the years-long push, said in a statement. “The Pine Tree Power Company will finally let us reinvest the money from our electricity bills back into the grid instead of sending it to investors overseas who have never set foot in Maine. The most recent spate of outages and CMP’s request for a double-digit rate increase makes this referendum all the more urgent.”

Opponents, including CMP and Versant, have decried the bill as a “government takeover” of private businesses.

Mills has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without her signature. If the bill, L.D. 1708, became law, voters would have the final say during a statewide referendum this November about whether to create a consumer-owned utility.

Mills’ office has said addressing concerns about lost property tax revenues did not go far enough.

“The governor is sympathetic to the concerns about Maine’s utilities, but she continues to believe that this bill presents a rosy solution to a complicated problem and, if advanced, would create more problems than it actually solves,” Mills spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said on Tuesday.

The bill seeks to create an entity known as the Pine Tree Power Company that would use billions of dollars in bonds to buy out the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. The new utility would be controlled by an elected board and could take advantage of low interest rates available to quasi-governmental entities in order to leverage the bonds necessary to buy CMP and Versant assets.

While supporters have predicted that buyout would cost roughly $5 billion, opponents have warned the bill could end up saddling ratepayers with $13 billion in debt after the inevitable, lengthy court challenges waged by CMP and Versant.

During a brief but lively debate, opponents blasted the measure as dangerous and risky to ratepayers.

“That amendment does not make a bad bill any better,” Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said about the property tax payments. “This is still bad legislation.”

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said there needs to be more focus on ensuring the Maine Public Utilities Commission is doing its job to properly regulate utilities. But he was among multiple opponents who said the consumer-owned utility bill simple “wasn’t ready” for primetime.

“Yes, this is fear mongering. It scares me right to death,” Timberlake said. “I have more fear about the government taking over businesses and different organizations in the state of Maine.”

But supporters said a consumer-owned utility would put the interests of Maine consumers ahead of corporate investors, eventually leading to lower rates, more investment in the electric grid and better reliability. Both CMP and Versant are subsidiaries of foreign, investor-owned companies.

“This is about competence, functioning and actually performing the job for the people that we represent,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford. “The two incumbent, investor-owned utilities controlled by foreign companies and foreign governments have failed at that. They have no incentive.”

Rep. Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, left, chats with Republican House leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, at her desk on the House floor before the session started Wednesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. It was the first day of the 130th Legislature that members could attend without a face covering. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Two Democratic senators from Androscoggin County, Sen. Ned Claxton of Auburn and Sen. Nate Libby of Lewiston, changed their votes and supported the amended bill.

Bennett and Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, have been the lead sponsors and proponents of the bill that sprang from growing frustration with rates and extended power outages in Maine. Berry and Bennett are also staunch critics of the CMP-backed New England Clean Energy Connect project to build a 145-mile transmission line from Quebec to western Maine.

On Tuesday, Mills’ office said the last-minute move to amend the bill was more evidence the legislation needs more work.

“The unveiling of this amendment – one day prior to a vote on it, which also will be the same day the Legislature is scheduled to consider a host of serious matters, including the budget – leaves little time for serious public consideration and feedback and simply underscores one of the governor’s primary concerns: that proponents of the legislation are attempting to too quickly advance a bill that would have massive implications for the state without having addressed its serious questions in a robust way,” Crete wrote.

In related action, the Senate narrowly failed to override a Mills veto of a bill that would have barred foreign-owned companies from spending money to influence ballot-question campaigns. The 22-12 vote on L.D. 194 fell one vote short of the two-thirds threshold needed to override the veto.

The measure was aimed squarely at Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian company that has spent $10 million to build public support for the CMP-backed transmission line across western Maine. The bill cleared the Senate, 23-11, after passing in the House of Representatives on a vote of 87-54.

Much like the $1 billion project itself, the bill saw bipartisan support and opposition. Proponents spoke out against foreign influence in Maine political decisions, while opponents raised concerns about fairness and constitutional issues.

During a State House rally earlier Wednesday, Bennett called it “rotten” that a foreign-owned corporation could spend so much money to sway Mainers’ opinions. Bennett said seven other states already ban foreign nationals or foreign governments from spending on state referendum elections and said Mills’ veto letter was “full of misinformation” and erroneous legal interpretations.

“She’s wrong on the policy and she’s wrong on the law,” Bennett said. “One wonders if she or her staff actually read the bill.”

In her veto message, Mills wrote that the bill could have affected dozens of Maine businesses with foreign investment and posed constitutional concerns based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings on attempts to limit political speech or spending.

“If L.D. 194 were to become law, I question whether it could survive constitutional challenge,” Mills wrote. “But more fundamentally, I trust Maine voters to sort through competing views as they consider how to cast their vote in any referendum, and I see no need for state government to protect them from information coming from any particular source, in accordance with our already robust disclosure requirements.”


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