Opponents of a proposal to buy out Maine’s two privately held electric utilities are launching a referendum effort to require voter approval of the cost of  completing such a purchase.

Political action committee Maine Affordable Energy, whose backers include Central Maine Power Co., filed an application Tuesday with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office to begin the process of gathering signatures to put a referendum on the ballot that would require voter approval before any government entity could take on $1 billion or more in debt.

Supporters of a consumer buyout of CMP and Versant Power also will be gathering signatures this fall to try to put their plan on the ballot. A proposal to create an entity known as Pine Tree Power Co. to pursue the buyout passed the Legislature early this year but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, and supporters were unable to secure enough votes to override the veto.

Both efforts will require supporters to gather more than 63,000 signatures to put a measure on the 2022 or 2023 general election ballot.

A purchase price for the utilities has not been determined and likely would need to be settled in court, but it is expected to be in the billions of dollars. Willy Ritch, spokesman for Maine Affordable Energy, said voters should get to decide whether to go ahead with the purchase once the price is set.

He said supporters of consumer purchases of utilities in other states have consistently underestimated the cost and, in any case, customers would be responsible for paying off the debt taken on for the buyout.

“We’d all be paying that off, through our electric bills, for decades,” he said.

The referendum his group is backing would give voters the final say on whether the deal is a good one for ratepayers, Ritch said.

“You get to know the price before you sign the check,” he said. “This is really a very simple proposal.”

Maine voters have consistently opted for more say in major state decisions, Ritch said, and he doesn’t expect them to pass up the chance for a final say on a utility buyout.

“I’m pretty darn sure they’re going to say yes,” he said.

Maine Affordable Energy is backed by CMP, Ritch said, but so far the utility hasn’t donated any money to the referendum effort. However, CMP did donate nearly $450,000 to the group when the buyout proposal was before the Legislature this year. Ritch said Maine Affordable Energy engaged in “grassroots lobbying” against that proposal, mainly encouraging voters who opposed a public purchase of the utilities to call their state lawmakers.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a leading proponent of the buyout of the two utilities, said the financial backing for Maine Affordable Energy speaks volumes about its aims.

“I trust Maine voters to follow the money, and to see who is behind the curtain,” Berry said. “Were I one of their shareholders, I would advise CMP and Versant to stop the bizarre political shenanigans, and instead do their job.”

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