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Maine Senate Approves Utility Takeover Bill, Gov. Mills Signals Veto Is Imminent

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

The Maine House and Senate have given initial approval to a bill that would create a consumer-owned public utility through a takeover of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. The votes came as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills continued to signal that she'll likely veto the bill, setting up a showdown that could occur later this month.

While sometimes parroting talking points prepared by lobbyists, the House and Senate debate over a potential consumer-owned utility Tuesday still managed to capture the high stakes of the forced sale and public purchase of the state's two investor-owned utilities.

"Most of us don't think about how we get our electricity until something goes wrong," said Democratic Rep. Nicole Grohoski, of Ellsworth, a co-sponsor of the bill. "Unfortunately, here in Maine, that happens all too often."

Grohoski said during Tuesday's House debate that those problems are rooted in the foreign-owned utility companies that divert their profits to shareholders instead of improving customer service and the electricity infrastructure they maintain.

"With our investor-owned monopoly, non-competitive utilities -- CMP and Versant -- Maine has the least reliable utilities nationwide with the lowest customer service ratings bar none," Grohoski said.

"I really want this to change," said Rep. Scott Cuddy, a Democrat from Winterport.

Cuddy says the proposal would wrest control of investor-owned utilities and empower Maine ratepayers.

"I want us to take control of our energy independence, our energy future and L.D. 1708 is a way to do that," Cuddy says.

But some opponents, including CMP, describe the bill as a government takeover.

Others say its an ill-conceived concept that's rushed, poorly vetted and kicks the hard decisions to Maine voters, who could have the chance to ratify the utility takeover as soon as November.

Republican Senate leader Jeff Timberlake, of Turner, said that such drastic action is born from misplaced blame.

Ultimately, he says, if Maine's two largest utilities are failing ratepayers then state regulators -- specifically the Maine Public Utilities Commission -- are partially responsible.

"It's their job to oversee all of our public utilities. And if CMP is doing as bad a job as all of us in this room have said they are, then the PUC is not doing its job," he said.

Opponents of the bill also warned that it could make promises that it can't keep.

Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham, also worries that Maine taxpayers could be on the hook for unforeseen costs even though supporters suggest otherwise.

"I mean it looks good here and sounds good and it's a comfort. But I'm not sure we can really say that directly," Diamond said.

Opponents of the bill came up short in the house as it won initial approval by a vote of 76-62, while the Senate also narrowly approved it, 19-16.

But the battle is far from over.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills continues to signal that a veto is imminent.

She has cited a number of concerns, Including skepticism toward the consumer-owned utility's proposed governing structure, the lack of required expertise for members of the new elected board and the proposed language of the ballot question that voters could consider in November.

If the governor vetoes the bill, supporters would need a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to override her - margins not evident in the initial votes taken this week.

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