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Two groups say they have the signatures for competing ballot initiatives on electric utilities

Andrew Blunt, executive director of the group Our Power, speaks in the Hall of Flags at the State House on Monday before delivering boxes containing petition signatures for a ballot initiative to create a nonprofit electric utility from the assets of CMP and Versant.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Andrew Blunt, executive director of the group Our Power, speaks in the Hall of Flags at the State House on Monday before delivering boxes containing petition signatures for a ballot initiative to create a nonprofit electric utility from the assets of CMP and Versant.

A campaign to take over Maine's two largest electric utilities handed in petition signatures to send the issue to voters next year. But the proposal faces strong opposition from businesses and well-funded groups who are planning their own ballot initiative.

Flanked by boxes of petition signatures, supporters of the proposed referendum to create a nonprofit electric utility held a press conference at the Maine State House to send a message to Central Maine Power and Versant.

"Today over 80,000 Maine voters are ready to revoke your monopoly privilege,” said Andrew Blunt, executive director of the group Our Power that has spearheaded the petition drive. “Today, we are here standing with them and standing up for the businesses and people of Maine. Today we are ready to take back our money and take back our power.”

Our Power and its supporters are hoping to tap into voter frustration to transform Maine's electricity landscape. For the past year, volunteers have been gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that seeks to force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to a nonprofit known as the Pine Tree Power Company. Unlike the investor-owned parent companies of Maine’s largest utilities, Pine Tree Power would be run by a board of elected officials. And campaign officials say the nonprofit would be cheaper, more reliable and more transparent than the for-profit, international energy giants that own CMP and Versant.

"We are a local controlled state and local ownership of our grid shifts control of our power back to Mainers,” said Linda Woods, a retired teacher and climate activist from Waterville who helped collect signatures. “No other essential service is owned by a foreign company. Our electricity should not be either.”

The campaign began about four years ago at a time when CMP was facing intense backlash for prolonged storm-related power outages, rising electricity prices and inaccurate billing. Electric rates are even higher today thanks to a mix of global and regional factors. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 to create the Pine Tree Power Company but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. There are currently nine consumer-owned utilities in Maine service more than 90 towns.

The proposal also faces fierce opposition from the utilities and a growing number of business groups. The parent company of CMP, Avangrid, has already contributed more than $10 million to a ballot question committee called Maine Affordable Energy that has been working to block or oppose the Our Power initiative, which they contend is a government takeover of Maine's private utilities. They have also gathered more than 90,000 signatures to put forward a separate, competing ballot question that aims to force voters to approve a bond sale of $1 billion or more to finance the buyout.

Opponents predict the takeover bid could cost $13.5 billion – a figure that supporters of the consumer-owned utility strongly dispute – and would only happen after years of lawsuits. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce and labor union leaders with the Maine AFL-CIO have already come out against Our Power's campaign. And so have a growing number of business leaders, including David Barber, whose family owned and operated the Barber Foods plants in Portland that are now part of Tyson Foods.

"We're big on reliability. If we don't have reliability to run those two facilities in Portland, we are toast,” Barber said in an interview at the State House immediately after Our Power’s press conference. “And CMP has been very reliable for us. And the last thing is the cost: this thing is outrageously expensive. I don't know how you pay a billion dollars a year in payments to this thing in order to support the debt that we are taking on."

Meanwhile, David Trahan with the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine is concerned that hunters, ATV riders and snowmobilers could lose access to thousands of miles of utility corridors that CMP and Versant currently leave open tot he public.

"More and more people come in and try to ban hunting and trapping, and fishing from public lands,” Trahan said. “So, it's not like it's a red herring; it's going on every year. And certainly, we want to look out for the interests of people who recreate on these power lines."

Our Power as well as competing No Blank Checks campaign will have to file 63,067 valid signatures from registered voters in Maine in order to qualify for the ballot. Willy Ritch, a spokesman for No Blank Checks, said his organization will wait to see if Our Power qualifies for the ballot before submitting their signatures to the Secretary of State’s office. If both citizen initiatives qualify, they would go to voters during the off-year election in November 2023.