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Mills Vetoes Bill That Would Have Barred Foreign Government-Owned Entities From Electioneering In Ballot Campaigns

Nick Woodward
Maine Public File

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill that would have barred entities owned by foreign governments from influencing ballot campaigns with advertising and other forms of electioneering.

The proposal was inspired by Hydro-Quebec’s roughly $10 million in spending to convince Maine voters to defeat referendums that would scuttle Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project. Hydro-Quebec, wholly owned by the government of Quebec, is the electricity supplier for the project.

Mills, a supporter of the CMP project, said in her veto message that the bill that cleared the House and Senate was “offensive” to the democratic process and could potentially prohibit Maine companies with ownership by foreign governments from electioneering.

“Entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers,” Mills wrote in her veto message. They include Stratton Lumber, Woodland Pulp and Paper, Backyard Farms, McCain Foods, and Sprague Energy, to name just a few. Legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, information, and opinion.”

The bill would have applied to companies with 10% or more of foreign government ownership and drafters of the bill purposely struck language that would have made the electioneering prohibition apply to companies with foreign investment or ownership, despite calls to include them from interest groups that viewed the proposal as a way to limit corporate influence in elections.

Maine Public has thus far been unable to find evidence that any of the companies cited by the governor have ownership by foreign governments. All of them either have foreign investment or foreign ownership.

A spokesperson for the governor said the governor listed the companies to demonstrate that foreign investment in Maine companies is “pervasive” and that identifying sources of investment would be difficult and impractical.

“But more importantly, her fundamental concern about the legislation is that it positions the government to restrict what the people may hear and the kind of information to which people should have access in the context of an election and, thus, she believes, it is bad policy and likely unconstitutional,” the spokesperson said.

“Even more troubling is this bill’s potential impact on Maine voters,” Mills wrote. “Government is rarely justified in restricting the kind of information to which the citizenry should have access in the context of an election, and particularly a ballot initiative.”

Supporters of the bill argued that it closed a loophole in Maine election law exploited by Hydro-Quebec, which only prohibits foreign influence in campaigns involving candidates.

Several states have adopted similar measures and Canada now has a broad prohibition on foreign influence in elections that includes referendums.

Supporters of the bill included the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. In a written statement, executive director Anna Kellar said courts have upheld state bans that “protect the democratic process from outside money and to safeguard the sovereignty of the state’s voters.”

“We are disappointed that the governor has vetoed this important legislation to get foreign government money out of Maine politics,” Kellar said. “LD 194, which received overwhelming public and bipartisan lawmaker support at its public hearing, would close an important loophole in our laws by preventing foreign governments from spending in ballot question campaigns. This commonsense reform was supported by a majority of the U.S. Congress as a part of the For The People Act, and we agree with a majority of Congress and the Maine Legislature that this bill is neither unconstitutional nor offensive to the political process.”

The bill passed with wide margins in the House and Senate, although the House vote was not enough to represent a supermajority. Supermajorities in the House and Senate would be needed to override the governor’s veto when the Legislature returns next week.

Updated: June 24, 2021 at 4:23 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include a statement from the governor’s office, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment at the time of the original publication.
Updated: June 24, 2021 at 1:31 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional context, reaction from supporters of LD 194 and more comment from Gov. Mills.
Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.