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CMP Transmission Project Pits High-Profile Maine Republican Against State's Largest Business Lobby

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Maine Republican Party chairman Rick Bennett speaks at the Maine Republican Convention, Saturday, April 26, 2014, in Bangor, Maine.

The political, legal and legislative efforts to thwart Central Maine Power’s $1 billion transmission corridor continued apace this week as state lawmakers considered a slate of bills that could sideline a key financial beneficiary and a Superior Court judge ruled that the state didn’t follow the law when it leased public lands for the project.

At the same time, a Republican state senator denounced the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in a searing broadside that accused the state’s leading business organization of siding with foreign interests.

State Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has emerged as one of the Legislature’s most vocal critics of the corridor, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC. In December, Bennett, a former chairman of the Maine Republican Party, criticized his caucus leaders for leaving him off the Energy and Utilities Committee, a post that would have given him more of a platform to question the project as well as CMP’s myriad interests in state energy policy.

Bennett is also sponsoring one of three bills designed to prevent Hydro-Quebec from spending money to influence voters in a referendum that could scuttle the NECEC this November.

Hydro-Quebec is the electricity generator for the NECEC, an agreement between CMP and Massachusetts to help the Bay State meet its renewable energy targets. Hydro-Quebec has spent lavishly to promote the NECEC, a project that it recently called the largest sales contract in its history and worth an estimated $12 billion in revenue.

The company’s public persuasion efforts in Maine have totaled roughly $10 million, a financial outlay that has come under scrutiny because the utility’s sole shareholder is the government of Quebec. Some lawmakers, including Bennett, are attempting to halt that spending by closing a loophole in Maine election law that currently allows foreign companies to spend money to influence ballot campaigns.

However, Bennett didn’t just criticize Hydro-Quebec during his testimony before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. He also scolded the state chamber for joining in the effort to oppose the anti-foreign-influence bills sponsored by himself, Rep. Kyle Bailey, D-Gorham, and Harrison independent Rep. Walter Riseman. Bennett accused the chamber of “shilling” for foreign governments and insinuated that it wasn’t just defending the NECEC, but also acting as a paid agent for Hydro-Quebec.

“The chamber says they speak for 5,000 Maine businesses, implying that Maine businesses support foreign governments’ involvement in our elections,” Bennett testified. “Have they polled their members on this question? More pointedly, how might these bills, which would staunch large flows of cash into Maine from beyond our national borders, affect the chamber’s own business model? How much money does the chamber receive from companies like CMP, Avangrid, Hydro-Quebec? Who are they really serving?”

Bennett then challenged lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to pose those questions to the chamber’s attorneys during the public hearing.

None did.

“They (Hydro-Quebec) didn’t pay us anything,” chamber President Dana Connors told Maine Public in an interview the day after the public hearing.

Connors also disputed Bennett’s characterization of the chamber’s involvement last week in a legislative standoff over changes to the state’s current budget. Bennett suggested that the chamber was siding with large multinational companies when it backed Republicans’ push for obscure tax benefits.

“Last week the chamber was here before the Legislature slowing passage of our state budget for two days in order to extract beneficial tax treatment for large multinational companies, tax benefits so opaque that no company knew if and how they are benefiting,” Bennett said. “This week they’re here to tell Maine people that they must share their rights of self-determination with foreign governments.”

“He’s just saying that because we’re on opposite sides of the NECEC,” said Connors, adding that Bennett’s claims that the chamber forced the budget standoff were “not true.”

Connors insists that the chamber’s opposition to the foreign influence bills is primarily motivated by potential impacts such proposals would have on other Maine businesses with foreign ties or ownership, not just the silencing of a key ally from a referendum — a referendum the chamber is also trying to stop in court.

Connors also denied that the chamber is acting as a pass-through between Hydro-Quebec and Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, an advocacy group created by the chamber in 2018 that has thus far been able to legally obscure its funding sources. Last year an attorney for the chamber acknowledged in a report by the Maine Monitor that the NECEC advocacy group had received funding from Central Maine Power and its parent company Avangrid during its public relations push for the NECEC. Neither the chamber nor CMP have said how much dark money has been directed at Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, which is not classified as a political committee.

Connors said there was no Hydro-Quebec money funneling to the same advocacy group, although he did say that company joined the Maine State Chamber of Commerce last year.

“We go after any business that’s making a significant investment in Maine,” he said.

Nevertheless, critics of the NECEC are likely to continue questioning the alliance between the chamber and Hydro-Quebec.

Bennett could also get more pushback for his high-profile and pointed opposition to a project that has won the support of powerful interests and politicians. There’s already speculation that he’s using bipartisan and populist opposition to NECEC as a platform for future political ambitions.

Bennett told Maine Public in February that he isn’t considering a run for governor. If he changes his mind, publicly challenging the Maine State Chamber of Commerce would certainly qualify as an unorthodox path for nascent gubernatorial campaign, especially for a Republican.

Tipped workers: the Maine experience

As Congress prepares to consider raising the federal minimum wage, a debate is emerging over whether the subminimum wage for tipped workers should be eliminated.

That debate is not new to Maine.

When progressive activists successfully raised Maine’s minimum wage via ballot initiative in 2016, the citizen-initiated law repealed the subminimum wage for tipped workers. The subsequent backlash from restaurant workers — specifically those for whom tips are their predominant source of income — was so overwhelming that the Maine Legislature changed the voter-approved law to restore what’s sometimes referred to as the tip credit.

Opposition from tipped workers was on the mind of independent U.S. Sen. Angus King when he and seven Democrats voted against including a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour in the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. King took considerable heat, but he cited the elimination of the subminimum wage for tipped workers as one of the primary reasons for his vote.

“Eliminating this system would be a heavy burden on employers (mostly restaurants, which are suffering anyway) and could end up hurting the very tipped employees we want to protect — and who in most cases already make well above the minimum wage,” King said in a statement. “I heard this from both restaurants and the leader of the servers’ organization in Maine before the vote. This is why Maine kept the tipped credit in our law after we raised the minimum wage several years ago.”

Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public
For Maine Public
Michelle, a restaurant worker at Cole Farm Restaurant in Gray, holds a sign in support of the tip credit in Augusta in April 2017.

The lower wage for tipped workers is a sticky issue with a controversial history.

The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law is among those making the case that the lower wage is a relic of the Jim Crow era when rail operators and restaurant owners offered tips to newly freed slaves as a way of compensating Black workers while also keeping them in economically and socially subordinate positions. That became true of women restaurant workers even after Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

The subminimum wage was eventually created in 1966 and it guaranteed tipped workers would be paid the regular minimum wage if the tips they earn is less. If they make more than the regular minimum wage in tips, they are also paid the subminimum wage.

The political problem with eliminating the tipped wage is that many restaurant workers earn more than the regular minimum wage. In some cases, they might make more than even a minimum wage as high as $15 an hour (Maine’s is currently $12.15 an hour). That’s why restaurant workers in Maine pushed back so hard against eliminating the subminimum wage in 2017.

Some progressive-minded restaurant owners have attempted to alleviate the problem by paying their workers a base wage much higher than the regular minimum wage.

But some restaurant owners say they can’t afford to do that, which is why the industry’s trade associations have long fought to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

Golden gets a look from Fox News

Democratic 2nd District Congressman Jared Golden’s vote against the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has generated anger and bewilderment from progressive activists, as well as a potential primary challenger. However, Golden is also getting some attention from Fox News, the oft-criticized national bullhorn for conservative views.

The headline on the network’s website read, “Meet Jared Golden, the House Democrat who bucked Pelosi, voting against stimulus package, gun bill.”

The quasi-profile didn’t reveal anything new to anyone who has followed Golden’s congressional career, but it serves as an introduction to voters whose views are shaped by the conservative media ecosystem.

In that sense, the story might actually be helpful to Golden in the short term because it’s in stark contrast to claims by previous Republican opponents that he does the bidding of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Golden’s recent votes immediately prompted speculation that he’ll draw a Democratic primary opponent next year. One potential challenger has emerged: Bangor resident Michael Sutton has filed candidate paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission.

Sutton, who decisively lost a Democratic primary for a Maine House seat last year, still has to collect enough signatures to appear on the 2022 primary ballot.

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