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CMP, Hydro-Quebec Spent $7 Million Last Quarter In Attempt To Squash Anti-Corridor Referendum

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Photo
In this May 2019 photo, a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of CMP's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman, Maine.

Central Maine Power and Canada’s Hydro-Quebec spent more than $7 million in the first quarter of the year opposing a prospective referendum that could scuttle a controversial transmission project through western Maine.

The total spending by both companies since last year is now more than $9.5 million, putting it on pace to easily become the state’s most expensive ballot campaign since 2017, when voters killed a controversial casino proposal in southern Maine.

The $1 billion project, which Hydro-Quebec has described as its largest sales contract in company history, is designed to help Massachusetts meet its renewable energy goals. CMP is poised to build the 145-mile corridor, but opponents launched a referendum drive that is scheduled for a vote in November. CMP has challenged whether organizers have enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. A Superior Court Judge ruled Monday that the referendum can move forward.

CMP’s legal efforts to block the referendum are reflected in the spending by its political action committee, Clean Energy Matters, which has spent more than $7.5 million since last year. The PAC’s filing for the first quarter of 2020 shows it spent most of its money on television, digital and radio ads, but also nearly $100,000 to hire Merrill’s Investigations, a private investigating and security company based in Massachusetts.

A private investigator for the company last month filed an affidavit alleging that he observed people involved in the anti-corridor campaign also notarizing petitions, a violation of state law.

The Maine secretary of state recently invalidated some signatures, but determined there were not enough infractions to keep the referendum off the ballot, a decision that kicked the matter back to Superior Court.

Revolution Strategies, a Massachusetts company involved in the signature gathering effort, was the primary beneficiary of anti-corridor spending, which was led by Mainers for Local Power, a PAC funded by two Texas-based companies that operate two natural gas-fired power plants in Maine. The PAC reported $600,000 in contributions for the quarter, the majority of it going to Revolution Strategies.

No CMP Corridor reported slightly less than $100,000 in donations for the quarter, including in-kind donations from Stop the Corridor, a limited liability company that has refused to disclose its donors. The Maine Ethics Commission is investigating whether the company should be required to reveal its funding sources. No CMP Corridor also received a $95,000 contribution from Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.

Hydro-Quebec’s ballot question committee, Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, reported more than $2 million in contributions and spending for the quarter. Hydro-Quebec’s sole shareholder is the provincial government of Quebec, but its ballot committee reported source campaign contributions from the company’s subsidiary in Hartford, Conn.

Hydro-Quebec’s spending on the referendum has been challenged by lawmakers in the Maine Legislature. Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, submitted a bill this year that would effectively block the company from attempting to influence the referendum.

The bill was prompted by reporting by Maine Public Radio, which found that unlike the clear federal prohibition on donations to candidate campaigns, Maine law is silent about whether foreign companies or foreign nationals can spend on state ballot campaigns. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus forced the Legislature to adjourn a month early in March, meaning that the proposal will only be considered if lawmakers can reconvene this year in a special session.

Originally published April 13, 2020 at 12:23 p.m. ET.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.