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Maine's supreme court requires rewording on consumer-owned utility question

FILE— Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Rolling blackouts may hit New England if there's an extended cold snap this winter. The CEO of power grid operator ISO New England said the situation is "precarious" because natural gas is in shorter-than-normal supply and also subject to supply chain disruptions.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
FILE— Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Rolling blackouts may hit New England if there's an extended cold snap this winter. The CEO of power grid operator ISO New England said the situation is "precarious" because natural gas is in shorter-than-normal supply and also subject to supply chain disruptions.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Secretary of State's office needs to revise the wording of a referendum question that could create a consumer-owned utility.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows had originally proposed the utility be described as "quasi-governmental," in part because of its similarities to water districts or conservation commissions. Those are examples of quasi-governmental entities in state law, but the term is not actually defined in state law.

That was a core reason justices cited in affirming a lower court decision overturning Bellows' wording on Monday. A majority ultimately decided "quasi-governmental" would be confusing to the average voter reading the question for the first time. And clarity is a major requirement for ballot questions under state law.

The ruling was cheered by the ballot referendum group Our Power, which wants to create the consumer-owned utility. The question asks if Mainers want to establish a company that would buy out Maine's biggest electrical providers. The new entity would have an elected board and borrow funds to buy out the utilities.

The challenge of the wording was brought by Wayne Jortner, a member of Our Power and former legal counsel to the Maine Public Advocate. Jortner had originally argued the term "consumer-owned" should be used in the question, but withdrew that argument in the appeal.

A spokesperson for the Secretary of State's office said it was reviewing the decision but would respect the court's decision.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.