Supporters, foes weigh in on utility bill on governor’s desk

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By DAVID SHARP Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A union representing electrical workers, more than a half-dozen mayors and one of the state’s largest employers wants Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to veto a bill that would scrap Central Maine Power and Versant Power and replace them with a consumer-owned utility.

But the proposal’s sponsors on Thursday held out hope of convincing her to sign the bill and let Mainers vote on it in November.

If that fails, they vowed to be part of a push to collect signatures to put the proposal on the ballot next year.

“Either way, Maine voters will have a say in our shared energy future,” Rep. Seth Berry, the lead sponsor, said Thursday.

Support in the Maine Legislature fell short of a two-thirds majority needed to overturn a potential veto by Mills, who called the proposal “a rosy solution to a very complicated series of problems.”

The leadership of Bath Iron Works and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers both want her to veto the proposal.

“We are concerned with the ability of a consumer-owned utility to undertake the enormous responsibilities associated with delivering electricity to the companies which power Maine’s economy and to light our homes,” Jon Fitzgerald, the shipyard’s general counsel, wrote to a lawmaker.

The electrical workers’ union wrote to the governor to cite concerns about pension investments, retirement benefits and a potential “revolving door” of private grid operators.

The mayors of seven communities, meanwhile, told the governor that they remain concerned despite an amendment to the bill.

The proposal is “one of the most significant, costly and risky pieces of legislation that the Maine Legislature has ever considered,” wrote the mayors of Auburn, Augusta, Biddeford, Gardiner, Lewiston, Saco and Westbrook.

On Thursday, the bill’s sponsors — Democratic Rep. Seth Berry and Republican Sen. Rick Bennett — gathered in the town of Bryant Pond in western Maine, in front of a giant memorial to a hand-cranked phone, to urge support for a consumer-owned utility.

A consumer-owned Pine Tree Power would be more responsive to Mainers’ needs than a pair of utilities whose owners are thousands of miles away, supporters say. Central Maine Power’s corporate parent is based in Bilbao, Spain. Versant’s owner is in Alberta, Canada.

“The foreign 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 the highest rates in the country,” Bennett, R-Oxford, said Thursday.

The bill comes 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 be a conduit for Canadian hydropower.

A double-digit rate increase that’s due to go into effect on Aug. 1 has served to further fuel customers’ anger.

Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said it’s time for Mainers to “turn away from broken, antiquated business models” and instead “lift ourselves up by our own faith and confidence in ourselves.”

They say Pine Tree Power would keep rates low, respond faster to outages and support clean energy projects.

Critics accused supporters of underestimating the cost of buying out the utility companies. Supporters have predicted that buyout would cost roughly $5 billion, but opponents have warned the bill could end up saddling ratepayers with $13 billion in debt after lengthy court challenges.

Berry said Mainers deserve to have the final say, and he said that will happen either on the November ballot if the governor signs the bill or in 2022 through a citizen initiative process.

A coalition called “Our Power” is prepared to lead a push to collect signatures for a referendum in 2022, Berry said. “The coalition intends to take this to the ballot,” one way or the other, he said.

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