The tug of war over the future of the state’s two privately owned electric utilities is continuing, with supporters of a proposal to buy out the companies attempting to thwart a referendum effort to require voter approval for taking on the cost of completing such a purchase.

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

CMP opponents responded by inserting language in their own referendum question that would exempt the buyout debt from requiring voter approval.

“They’ve gone out of their way to keep voters from having a say on taking on billions of dollars in new debt,” said Willy Ritch from Maine Affordable Energy, which opposes the breakup of CMP.

The new language would require long-term borrowing to be exempted from a statewide vote unless the same requirement would apply to CMP’s borrowing. The revised language was submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office on Sept. 16, about a week after Ritch announced his referendum initiative.

Rep. Seth Berry, the lead sponsor of a proposal in the Legislature to transform Maine’s privately held utilities – CMP and Versant Power – into a consumer-owned entity, declined comment.

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Ritch said his group is proceeding with the referendum initiative, finalizing the language and reviewing its options.

The two referendum questions could be on the ballot next year. Signatures necessary to put them to voters have not yet been collected by backers of either effort.

The referendum drives come after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed Berry’s legislation to buy out Central Maine Power and Versant Power and replace them with a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power.

The new entity would keep rates low, respond faster to outages and support clean energy projects, supporters said.

Critics accused the bill’s supporters of underestimating the cost of buying the utility companies and said ratepayers would be saddled with billions of dollars of debt from the purchase and litigation.

Ritch said some estimates suggest Mainers would have to take on up to $13 billion in debt.

“Mainers want to know how much the check is going to be made out for before they sign,” he said. “That’s why we came up with our proposal to give voters the final say.”

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