Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to crack down on underperforming power companies in Maine was met with fierce opposition Tuesday from both supporters of electric utilities and parties that want to replace those utilities with a consumer-owned model.

The groups spoke during a legislative committee hearing to discuss a bill drafted by Mills’ administration that would give utility regulators more authority to impose fines and other penalties on power transmission and distribution companies that fail to meet certain service and reliability standards. About a dozen people spoke in favor of the bill, and more than 40 spoke against it.

Power companies that testified against the bill Tuesday said new standards and penalties aren’t necessary because their service and accountability have improved recently. An even larger group of opponents said the bill doesn’t go far enough to rein in power companies owned by foreign conglomerates.

“This bill actually heads our energy policy in the wrong direction of reform,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford.

Bennett and others supported a bill last year to create a consumer-owned utility to take over for Central Maine Power and Versant Power. That bill was vetoed by the governor but has since been revived as an ongoing referendum effort.

“Consolidating more power to the governor’s office and the Public Utilities Commission is the path of this proposal. It is wrong-headed and misunderstands a fundamental problem,” Bennett said, referring to foreign ownership of the state’s utilities.

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BILL WOULD GRADE UTILITIES

The new bill would ensure more transparency and accountability from power companies such as Spanish-owned CMP and Canadian-owned Versant, supporters said. High prices, unreliable power and poor customer service have damaged their reputations in recent years, they said.

“We are well beyond the point of debating whether our utilities can do better – they can and they must,” Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said in testimony to the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “Utilities have demonstrated a need for improvement for their services to customers and businesses. It is vital we hold utilities accountable.”

The bill would require quarterly report cards grading utilities’ ability to meet minimum standards for customer service, complaints, reliability and power restoration. It would impose a fine of $1 million or 10 percent of annual revenue for multiple failing report cards. Continued failure could trigger a forced sale to another power company or a consumer-owned utility.

It also would add more protection for whistleblowers who report illegal or improper behavior by a utility, authorize the PUC to audit utilities’ financial information and require utilities to submit regular plans to address the impact of climate change on their infrastructure.

While the PUC already has many of the powers outlined in the bill, it would fill glaring gaps in state law governing public utilities, said Maine Public Advocate Bill Harwood, whose office helped draft the bill.

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“Mainers are struggling with the rising cost of their electricity bills this winter, and the time to act on this is now,” Harwood said. “We must ensure that electric consumers are not being taken advantage of by unchecked utilities, and this bill gives the PUC the tools to do so.”

CMP SAYS BILL REDUNDANT

Dozens of people who waited hours to testify against the bill Tuesday either characterized it as a cynical ploy to maintain the status quo or government overreach to address problems that don’t exist.

“We agree with the governor’s motivation for the bill: accountability, transparency, tough standards and consequences for failure,” CMP President Joe Purington said. “(But) we believe the Legislature already got it right – the PUC already has the authority it needs to do its job.”

The utility has fixed many of the problems that emerged in 2017 and 2018 when the botched rollout of a new billing system and long-term power outages from a fall storm torpedoed consumer confidence in the company and triggered a series of regulatory investigations, Purington said. Just last week the company was released from two years of sanctions that cost it $12.5 million.

The bill seems intended to address issues CMP had a few years ago but has since fixed, said Linda Ball, the utility’s vice president for customer service.

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“We don’t object to metrics or accountability to our performance, but this bill is just not necessary and is predicated on service from four years ago,” Ball said. “We have come so far since then, and many of those problems are in the past.”

OTHERS SEE TROJAN HORSE

But far more people argued Tuesday that the bill would only reinforce an investor-owned utility system that isn’t working and make it harder to transfer Maine’s power transmission and distribution assets to a consumer-owned power authority, as they would like to do.

Many said the public would have no say in the PUC rule-making process for the minimum utility standards, and they worried utility interests would end up guiding any new regulations called for in the bill.

Others questioned why affordability was not one of the minimum standards, given skyrocketing energy prices and repeated electricity rate increases. Others said the bill would simply paper over problems and give utilities a clean slate when fundamental change is needed.

“We already know CMP and Versant are failing – we don’t need a costly and lengthy process to tell us that,” said Faith Woodman, of Bath. “Please don’t give the public fake hope that this bill will give the public the accountability it needs, because it won’t.”

Even groups that spoke in favor of the bill said it needed significant changes to ensure transparency and help the state meet climate change and clean energy goals.

The bill should include accountability metrics to meet Maine’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, present a clear and viable pathway to divestiture in the case of repeated poor performance, and operational and investment plans that align with state climate change requirements, said Rebecca Schultz, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“Utility accountability in Maine has never been more urgent. If utilities in Maine are granted the privilege of operating here with a monopoly franchise, then we should have the highest expectations for their performance,” Schultz said. “We support the core concepts of accountability motivating this bill but believe that it must be significantly strengthened.”


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