Gov. Janet Mills fortunately stopped a sloppy, misguided attempt to put a loaded ballot question to voters in November, but the issue may return in future elections.
Last week, Mills vetoed LD 1708, a proposal to create a consumer-owned utility called the Pine Tree Power Company. The Legislature, in a mixed vote of 68-65, sustained her veto on Monday.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), would have seized the assets of Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant Power by eminent domain and handed their control over to an 11-member, elected board of “experts.”
“It’s not even clear to me in the bill whether it’s supposed to be a public entity or a private entity… I mean I hate to sound like a lawyer, but… names have meaning, and they determine the tax-exempt status of an entity, for instance, and whether or not they’re eligible… to issue tax-exempt bonds, which is the underpinning of the bill,” she said at the press conference.
She also bashed the bill for being rushed, noting it was printed on May 17, heard in committee on May 20, worked in committee on June 1 and then voted out of committee on the same day. It was a rushed, flawed and imperfect bill from the start, to say the least.
The measure would have put the following question on the ballot this November:
“Do you favor the creation of the Pine Tree Power Company, a nonprofit, privately operated utility, governed by a board elected by Maine voters, to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power, without using tax dollars or state bonds, and to focus on delivering reliable, affordable electricity, and meeting the State’s energy independence and Internet connectivity goals?”
Calling the description “rosy” and saying it would “put a finger on the scale of the referendum process,” Mills explained how the question would deceive voters by highlighting only the best possible outcomes of the state takeover, neglecting to mention any of the risks.
Though the measure is dead for now, Mills’ veto will likely serve as a catalyst for getting the measure on our ballots by way of the state’s citizen initiative process in November 2022. Proponents claim they will pursue a ballot initiative to advance the idea, which is what they should have done in the first place instead of trying to get the measure to appear on the ballot by way of the legislature, without collecting enough signatures to confirm Mainers actually want the question to appear on their statewide ballots.
Berry and Our Power, a ballot question committee that supports consumer-owned utilities (COUs), still intend to get the idea and language behind LD 1708 on a future statewide ballot. Our Power first registered with the state in 2020, with the intention of creating a ballot question on COUs.
In a statement, Stephanie Clifford, the campaign manager for Our Power, said, “With three-quarters of Mainers supporting our proposal and volunteers contacting us daily, we are confident we can collect signatures and succeed at the ballot box.”
If Berry and Our Power decide to continue with the proposal through a ballot initiative, they should clarify the language it uses and address the concerns of the governor. If the group collects enough signatures, the Legislature can still pass it as written, send it to voters or propose a competing measure.
Though the bill would be an unprecedented and haphazard seizure of private assets by the government, if its proponents really wanted to put the question to Mainers, they should have taken the time and care to craft a cohesive bill, not a hurried, “rush to be enacted” measure that would, as Mills critiqued, pass on many unknown expenses to Maine ratepayers.
Mills and the Legislature made the right call in killing the bill.