Bill to create public utility draws passionate testimony

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A proposal to buy out the state’s two major electric utilities and form a public utility drew passionate testimony Thursday from scores of people who waited patiently to address lawmakers.

Critics portrayed the proposal as a “government takeover” of Maine’s utility grid that would be costly and carry no guarantee of improved service.

But Rep. Seth Berry, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s time to be freed of foreign-investor owned utilities and chart a new path. Central Maine Power is owned by a Spanish utility, while Versant Power’s corporate parent is in Canada.

David Littell, a former member of the Public Utilities Commission, told the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that the cost projections and timetables were unrealistic. He also predicted the it would create years of costly litigation.

It would cost $13 billion to buy the utilities if they were paid fair market value, said David Flanagan, executive chairman of CMP, while Berry and his supporters had a much lower estimate, about $5 billion.

There was plenty of support for the creation of a public utility called Pine Tree Power amid anger over CMP’s poor response to storm damage, its botched rollout of a billing system and construction of a transmission line that has drawn considerable opposition in western Maine.

“This ownership model has been a disaster, draining money from Maine while leaving us with the most outages, the longest outages, the worst customer service and among of the highest rates in the country,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford.

The proposal would direct the Maine Public Utilities Commission to find CMP and Versant “unfit to serve.”

The Pine Tree Power Company would be run by an elected board, but day-to-day operations of the consumer-owned utility would be managed by a private company hired for the task.

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