By DAVID SHARP Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A bill that that aimed to eliminate Maine’s privately owned electric utilities by buying them out and replacing them with a consumer-owned utility was vetoed Tuesday by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, likely spelling the end of the proposal this legislative session.
Mills acknowledged that performance of Central Maine Power and Versant Power has been “abysmal” but said the proposal to send them packing — with voters getting the final say — was “deeply flawed” and “hastily drafted and hastily amended.”
“I certainly agree that change is necessary. No question about that. And I remain open to considering alternative proposals,” she said.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, disputed the governor’s characterization of the proposal, arguing that it was thoroughly vetted over the past three years.
And it isn’t going away. A coalition will be launching a referendum drive to put the proposal before voters anyway next year, instead of this fall.
Supporters said it’s time to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power, which are owned by corporations in Spain and Canada, with an entity that works in the interest of Mainers instead of shareholders.
The new entity, Pine Tree Power, would keep rates low, respond faster to outages and support clean energy projects, they said.
Critics accused the bill’s supporters of underestimating the cost of buying the utility companies and said ratepayers would be saddled with billions of dollars of debt from the purchase and litigation.
The bill came at a time of frustration with CMP, the state’s largest electric utility, over a botched rollout of a billing system, slow response to storm damage and power outages, and a controversial utility corridor that would serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower.
The bill won bipartisan support in the Maine Legislature, but Berry acknowledged there’s little hope of reaching a two-thirds majority necessary to override the governor’s veto.
The veto came a day after an independent audit conducted for the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that CMP is making improvements and isn’t “irredeemably flawed.”
But the report also said “it remains prudent to question the sustainability of the positive changes that have occurred.”
Berry said “modest improvements” cited in the report were in response to the bill that aimed to replace the utilities, and that those improvements will “go away as soon as this bill goes away.”
The veto was not a surprise. Mills previously called the proposal “a rosy solution to a very complicated series of problems.”
On Tuesday, she reiterated her concerns about the bill, calling it “a patchwork of political promises rather than a methodical reformation of Maine’s complicated electrical transmission and distribution system.”
She said she had a number of concerns including who’d operate the grid, the potential loss of property taxes for several communities, and the bill’s language that could affect the tax-exempt status of bonds.
She said she wasn’t closing the door on a takeover of the utilities but said she wants more time and effort to go into the vetting.
In the meantime, she said the state should step up its regulatory efforts through the Public Utilities Commission, look at performance-based incentives like those used in Hawaii and consider beefing up the state’s divestiture law.
William Dunn from Our Power, which will lead the referendum drive to put the proposal before voters next year, dismissed the idea that regulators can solve the utilities’ problems.
“Maine regulators cannot fix this problem any more than a mouse can tame a cat,” Dunn said.