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Mills Vetoes Consumer Takeover Of Maine’s 2 Dominant Utilities, Leaves Door Open To Changes

janet mills at 7-13 presser.jpg
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the press at the Maine State House on July 13, 2021 after she vetoed a bill aiming to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill that would have asked Maine voters to authorize a takeover of Maine's two largest electricity companies and replace them with a consumer-owned utility operated by an elected board. Mills says she's open to the concept and to potentially updating investor-owned utility regulations that could improve rates and reliability for customers. But advocates for the bill are not satisfied and are vowing to pursue the utility takeover in a 2022 referendum.

The governor's veto was expected.

For weeks Mills had been signaling that she felt the proposal to buy the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power was drafted too quickly and had numerous problems, including the makeup and lack of qualifications of its elected board.

During a press conference in her cabinet room, Mills indicated that it might be time for Maine customers to takeover the two dominant utilities, but the bill, LD 1708, was not the solution.

"But LD 1708, hastily drafted and hastily amended several times in recent weeks without robust public participation, seems to me to be a patchwork of political promises rather than a methodical reformation of Maine's complicated electricity transmission and distribution systems," she said.

The governor opened her remarks by taking aim at Maine's two largest electricity providers and CMP in particular, citing the company's billing error controversy, ongoing delays in power restoration after storms and snags connecting new solar projects as abysmal and inexcusable.

Those issues have plagued CMP for the past five years and have fueled a movement that has called for more rigorous oversight by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, and more recently, an outright takeover of the company's assets.

Democratic Rep. Seth Berry, of Bowdoinham, has often been the legislative voice of those efforts and he's the lead sponsor of the consumer-owned utility bill.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham 7-13 presser.jpg
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the lead sponsor of the bill, responds to the governor’s veto in the Hall of Flags of the State House.

"Today the governor vetoed that effort. She made the wrong choice but we are going to go forward anyway. There's an outside coalition that plans to bring it to the people in 2022," he said.

Berry's bill would have sent the utility takeover to voters this year and in the closing push to enact the proposal he and other supporters had called on Mills to let Maine voters have their say.

"The governor today chose not to trust the people with this important decision, but I know the majority of the Legislature does trust the people and wants to see the people weigh in on this important question," he said.

"Well that would be easy. That would be the easy thing to do," Mills said.

Mills said sending the issue to directly to voters with the flaws she see in it would've been irresponsible.

"If I was simply to pass this along to the people of Maine for a vote in November, I would not be doing my job. Instead I would be shirking my responsibilities as their governor, something I cannot and will not do," she said.

Instead, Mills left the door open for a different iteration of a utility takeover, although offered no specific proposal.

She also indicated that changes to the Maine utility regulator, the PUC, might be an option.

When asked if the PUC had done its job overseeing Central Maine Power and Versant, she didn't answer directly, but said her recent appointees to its three-member board will.

"I think the new PUC has the capability to do the job. And I think I've put two really good people on that commission. I think they have the energy and ability to the job with absolutely no ties or affiliation with any of these utilities," she said.

"We will not regulate our way to a clean energy future. We have tried that and we have failed," Berry responded.

Rep. Berry, the bill's sponsor, says the investor-owned utility model is inherently flawed.

In a memo to the governor he sent in June, Berry said investor-owned utilities like CMP have a perverse incentive to overbuild infrastructure and push initiatives that are more expensive for customers and undervalue performance.

And he also cited an independent audit ordered by the PUC released Monday that found Avangrid, which owns CMP, overemphasized the closing of earnings gaps while aggressively pursuing staffing reductions that ultimately hurt service to Maine customers.

The audit also found that CMP was improving and not "irredeemable," but Berry says that's not good enough.

"Would you trust a foreign for-profit monopoly with your children's schools, with your hospitals, with your fire department? Of course not, so why would we trust them with our clean energy future?" Berry said.

Berry's remarks echoed those of the group Our Power, which said it will begin gathering signatures to put the proposal on the ballot in 2022.

That will mean another year or more of campaigning against CMP, which is already confronting opposition to its controversial transmission project through western Maine.

In a written statement, interim company president Scott Mahoney thanked Gov. Mills for vetoing the bill, which it has described as a misguided government takeover and costly one for Maine ratepayers.

The Legislature will reconvene next week to vote on the veto, but supporters of the bill don't expect they have the votes to override the governor.