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Business and Economy

Maine Lawmakers Unveil Effort To Purchase CMP, Versant To Create Consumer-Owned Utility

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Mal Leary
/
Maine Public
Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett at a Monday press conference in Augusta.

A group of Maine lawmakers has unveiled an effort to buy Maine's two largest utilities and operate them as a consumer-owned corporation. At a news conference outside the State House on Monday, they said Central Maine Power and Versant could offer lower rates and better service to customers as one nonprofit utility.

The bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and other interests, named Our Power Maine, wants the Legislature to approve the creation of Pine Tree Power. The company would be governed by a board elected by Maine voters, and would buy the two privately-owned utilities using revenue bonds paid for by rates and not state tax dollars or bonding.

Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford said the utilities do not operate in the best interest of the state.

“Foreign governments and foreign corporations own Maine’s major electric utility monopolies. 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 the highest rates in the country,” he said.

Maine already has nine consumer-owned utilities. Sharon Staz is the former general manager of one of them, the Kennebunk Light and Power District.

“Kennebunk Light and Power is more reliable then neighboring CMP, while experiencing the same weather conditions as the rest of York County and the state of Maine,” she said.

And Staz said the higher reliability comes even with lower rates than CMP charges. Democratic Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, one of the bill’s sponsors, said all Mainers — individuals and businesses alike — would benefit from the new company's lower rates.

“They charge 58% more than our existing consumer utilizes, and we have the 11th highest rates in the nation. So, no matter how you slice it, they have failed us,” he said.

In a statement, CMP said they have not seen the bill but stressed that any takeover of the utilities would be expensive. CMP estimates the price of purchasing it and Versant at $13 billion, and said there's no guarantee the move would improve reliability or service.

This is not the state's first attempt to buy the private utilities and make them consumer owned. In 1973, the utilities defeated a citizen-initiated bill to create a similar nonprofit in the Legislature and then mounted an expensive campaign to defeat it at the polls, with 61% of the vote.

Bennett says he is sure the utilities will do the same this go-round, and predicts another drive to put the question to the voters if they do. But he says times have changed since the '70s.

"People are ready to get things done in their interest," he says, in ways "party labels and the usual ideologies do not predict.”

After the bill is printed, a public hearing will be held on the measure before eventually going to the full Legislature for consideration.

Corrected: April 20, 2021 at 4:01 PM EDT
$13 billion is the estimated purchase price for CMP and Versant, not CMP alone.