Politics is a zero-sum game. Once the votes are counted, one side takes office and the other goes home.

But governing should not be so black and white. Between elections, the winners ought to seize every opportunity they get to improve their constituents’ lives, even if the result falls short of their goal.

One of those opportunities is Gov. Mills’ L.D. 1959, An Act to Ensure Transmission and Distribution Utility Accountability. It would require more transparency from regulators and put the utility companies on notice that they could lose their Maine franchise if they don’t improve their performance.

But judging from the testimony at last week’s public hearing in Augusta, it’s a fight that the black-and-white thinkers are going to win. That would be a mistake. Lawmakers who want to offer utility customers relief from high prices and bad service should work this session to pass the strongest version possible of Mills’ bill, even as they continue to push for more fundamental changes in the state’s energy sector.

The bill comes in response to a multiyear effort to force the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Versant and Central Maine Power, to sell their Maine assets to a nonprofit, consumer-owned company that would be run by professional managers overseen by an elected board.

A bill that would have sent the question to the voters passed both houses of the Legislature last year but was vetoed last July by Gov. Mills, who acknowledged the public’s frustration with the current system.


“The performance of our investor-owned utilities in recent years has been abysmal,” Mills wrote in her veto message. “We are well beyond the point of debating whether our utilities can do better. They can and they must.”

Her response is L.D. 1959, which outlines a number of steps to improve performance, including fines of up to $1 million for bad service and a process for forcing the utility’s sale if problems persist. The public could track the companies’ progress through a quarterly report card issued by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

This editorial board supported the bill that would have moved Maine toward a consumer-owned utility system. Clearly what’s now before the Legislature does not fix the problems we saw with the current model, in which companies are more loyal to their owners than to the people they serve.

But we don’t have to abandon our position in order to support something that would make a bad situation a little less bad.

That’s not the case with supporters of a citizen-initiated referendum to pass the bill like the one Mills vetoed. They see her bill as an effort to confuse voters and maintain the status quo.

“The real disservice of this bill is the false hope it offers at a time when Mainers need something real,” said Sen. Rick Bennett in testimony to the Energy Committee. “We need to restore honesty and trust in our electric system and in our political system. We will not achieve (that) through dilatory half-measures.”


Perhaps, but consider this: The group Our Power failed to gather enough signatures to put the question on the 2022 ballot, so voters will not get to weigh in this year. There is no guarantee that the question will qualify for the ballot in 2023 either.

Bennett said that there is no reason for utility report cards from the PUC because the public already knows what’s wrong, but that’s not necessarily true either.

Quarterly evaluations could give voters a clearer idea of where the utilities fall short, which would be good to know if the question comes to a vote. In the meantime, public report cards and a looming referendum might put the companies on their best behavior, which can only benefit rate payers in the years it would take to pass a referendum and implement it.

And the utility reformers should take a look at who else is on their side: Central Maine Power is also flatly opposed to L.D. 1959. Would that be the case if it were really a mechanism to preserve their monopoly?

Governing should not be a zero-sum game. Lawmakers should do what they can to make the standards for the utilities as tough as possible and put pressure on the regulators to show that they can enforce them.

A consumer-owned utility may be the goal, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should pass on an opportunity to improve the lives of Maine people now.

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