The Maine State House in Augusta on June 21. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

As Maine lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills battle over a proposed ban on foreign campaign spending, companies from Canada and Spain are pouring millions of dollars into the state to buy television and online ads opposing a public takeover of two U.S.-based electricity companies.

Supporters of the public power campaign were outraged last week when Mills vetoed a bill to prevent foreign spending in state and local races. Lawmakers will return to Augusta on Tuesday and could attempt to override the veto.

But even if they are successful, the ban on foreign influence would have no impact on this fall’s public utility referendum campaign. Mainers are still facing a barrage of TV, newspaper and online ads and mailers, backed by millions in foreign spending, seeking to influence their votes.

“I do think it will be one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, referenda of all time in Maine,” said Mark Brewer, the chair of political science at the University of Maine, Orono.

To date, the most expensive ballot campaign in state history was the 2021 battle over Central Maine Power’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line corridor, where spending topped $90 million. Most of that – more than $67 million – came from foreign interests.

Proponents of the foreign spending ban say the idea is clearly popular with Maine voters and collected more than 80,000 signatures to put the proposal on the statewide ballot in November. But they also hoped the Legislature would pass the law first and avoid the need to go through a referendum campaign.


Lawmakers passed the bill, which would prohibit campaign spending by any company with at least 5% of its ownership controlled by a foreign government.

Mills vetoed the bill Wednesday, saying the broad language raised First Amendment concerns by silencing local businesses and forcing news outlets to verify funding sources for campaign ads and remove any material that violates the law.

While some lawmakers are vowing an override vote on Tuesday, the bill doesn’t appear to have the necessary two-thirds support in the House and Senate. It passed in the Senate by a vote of 19-13. There was no roll call vote in the House to measure support.

Even if lawmakers defy the odds and overturn Mills’ veto, a separate state law enacted earlier this month will prevent the ban from taking effect until next year.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, sponsored the bill that would delay the implementation of any citizen initiative adopted by the Legislature until Jan. 1. Bennett told lawmakers in May that the  bill, L.D. 764, was intended to dispel the notion that the citizen referendum was targeting only utility companies.

“We can make sure that we take the current politics of the referendum cycle out of the question,” Bennett said.


The bill passed and became law without the governor’s signature.

Bennett said the ban on foreign election interference is needed to protect future elections because the Federal Elections Commission ruled it has no jurisdiction over state referendum campaigns, creating “a dangerous loophole” in spending limits and disclosure rules.

On Thursday, Kaitlin LaCasse, campaign director of Protect Maine Elections, which supports the ban, said the bill is “a much-needed, long-term solution to protect our democracy from foreign government interference and dark money special interest groups.”

LaCasse said the group is working hard to win enough support to overturn the veto, so the law can take effect without the need for a referendum vote. She pointed to a spring poll showing nearly 82% of respondents supported the proposal.

The group began sending text messages to supporters shortly after the veto, urging them to contact their legislators to overturn it. Leaders also are organizing a rally in the Hall of Flags at the State House on Tuesday, when lawmakers return for what is expected to be their final day of work.

“No other issue in Maine has this level of support, and we should be able to trust our politicians to honor the will of the people and protect our democracy,” LaCasse said. “If the governor’s veto is allowed to stand, we will prevail in the November 2023 election.”


In addition to the possible vote on banning foreign spending in future referendum campaigns, Mainers will be asked this fall whether they support the creation of a consumer-owned utility to buy out the infrastructure and operations of the state’s two largest electricity distributors, Central Maine Power and Versant, both of which are owned by foreign corporations.

Facing an existential threat, those power companies have been mounting an aggressive and expensive campaign to protect their interests – vastly outspending proponents of a consumer-owned utility.

Two campaign committees funded almost entirely by utility companies have raised nearly $27.3 million since 2021, compared to just $786,390 raised by Our Power, which supports the consumer-owned utility.

The biggest player is the ballot question committee named Maine Affordable Energy, which is funded by Avangrid, the parent company for Central Maine Power. That group has raised nearly $18.9 million since being formed in 2021 to prevent a public utility takeover. It has already spent the bulk of that money on ads, reporting a cash balance of nearly $4.2 million through the end of June.

Avangrid is a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. But the company told Maine Public earlier this month that they don’t believe the proposed ban would affect them, even though the Qatari government investment fund owns a stake in the company, because they’re listed on the New York Stock Exchange and do not meet the threshold in the proposed law.

Avangrid spokesperson Leo Rosales said in a statement to the Press Herald that as a publicly traded company, “Avangrid’s diverse ownership is required by law to be open and transparent to the public, and we are subject to strict U.S. laws and regulations dealing with proper management, reporting, and governance.”


“While Iberdrola is Avangrid’s majority shareholder at around 80%, we have countless other shareholders in the form of individuals and funds like Vanguard, State Street, and the New York State Retirement Fund,” Rosales continued. “And despite charged rhetoric in Maine about foreign government ownership by the Norges Bank and the Qatar Investment Authority, the reality is that their collective stake in Avangrid is under 5%.”

The ban clearly would affect CMP’s partner in the New England Clean Energy Connect corridor, Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by Quebec. It was that company’s spending in the 2021 campaign that prompted calls for the foreign spending ban.

The second-biggest player in public power campaigns is Maine Energy Progress, a political action committee formed by Versant and its parent company, Enmax, which is the group’s sole funder.

Through June, Enmax, which is owned by and headquartered in the city of Calgary, Canada, has donated $8.4 million and reported a cash balance of $5.9 million.

In comparison, proponents of the consumer-owned utility are operating on a shoestring budget. Through June, Our Power had raised only $786,390 and reported a cash balance of more than $53,000.

Proponents with the Pine Tree Power campaign are seeking to turn their fundraising disadvantage into an advantage. In a news release last week, the group said their campaign had received contributions from more than 1,000 individuals, over 90% of whom were from Maine.

“Central Maine Power has had the worst customer satisfaction of any utility in the nation for four years running,” campaign manager Al Cleveland said. “It’s not hard to see why, when rather than improving reliability, focusing on customer service, or lowering prices, they and their parent company are putting millions in money and staff time toward buying political influence.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.