A Superior Court judge rejected on Tuesday a lawsuit against a citizens referendum designed to scuttle the goal of another ballot initiative – the public buyout of Maine’s two investor-owned electric utility companies.

The buyout proposal would replace Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility to be dubbed Pine Tree Power Co. But opponents of that measure last fall mounted a referendum drive of their own to require voter approval of any state borrowing over $1 billion. That measure might derail the creation of Pine Tree Power, as the opponents claim it would take $13.5 billion to buy out the two current utilities.

A lawsuit by Pine Tree Power supporters alleged that Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows incorrectly certified 1,181 petition signatures supporting the borrowing-oversight measure. Without those signatures, the referendum would have fallen just short of the 67,682 signatures – 10% of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election – required put the measure on the November statewide ballot.

Judge Michaela Murphy said the lawsuit backers failed to prove the signatures had been collected improperly. She also noted that when evidence about such signature-gathering is inconclusive, courts are required to defer to the secretary of state’s interpretation. That means that the signatures remain valid, she said.

Bill Dunn, a retired electric utility consultant from Yarmouth who filed the suit and is part of Our Power, a group that supports forming a new utility, called the ruling “a loss for Maine people and a win for (a) large corporate monopoly.”

Dunn has until Friday to request an expedited review of the ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but wouldn’t say whether he’s decided to file a request.


He also said the borrowing referendum might never come into play against the utility takeover because the buyout would likely be financed by revenue bonds, backed by the expected revenue that operating the utilities would generate. That might mean the debt taken on would not technically be backed by the state, he said.

Both the borrowing referendum and the one creating Pine Tree Power have several other steps to take before ending up on the ballot. As required by the Maine Constitution, each has been sent to the Legislature for consideration. The Legislature can adopt a citizens initiative as law, draft a competing version of the measure, or put it forward as a referendum. The first two options are rarely used and the Legislature typically opts to send questions to voters.

Dunn said Murphy failed to look at all the evidence he had amassed, including video of a petition circulator sleeping at a table while a voter signed the petition and unattended petitions at the polls. Circulators are required to monitor signatures of voters and affirm that they witnessed the signing.

However, a spokesman for No Blank Checks, a group that has championed the borrowing referendum, said Murphy’s ruling is a victory for accountability.

“Over and over again, Pine Tree Power has tried to find a way to head off any requirement that they come clean about the cost of their proposal,” Willy Ritch, executive director of No Blank Checks, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“The painful truth is that their scheme would put us on the hook for $13.5 billion in debt. … (Pine Tree Power wants to) avoid letting the voters of Maine have a say before we are saddled with that astronomical debt.”

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