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Seeking To Influence Lawsuit, Maine Lawmakers Declare CMP Corridor Lease Unconstitutional

Brian Bechard
Maine Public

In one of its final votes of the session, the Legislature approved a joint order asserting that a lease negotiated between the state and Central Maine Power for the utility's transmission corridor should have been approved by a vote by state lawmakers. While nonbinding, the order could affect a lawsuit brought by project opponents who say the lease agreements violated the state constitution.

The 28-6 vote in the Senate and the 66-57 vote in the House on Monday centered on a key claim in the lawsuit that's currently in superior court.

A group of corridor opponents, including citizens, state lawmakers and conservation organizations, contend in the lawsuit that the state should have sought the Legislature's approval before leasing roughly 33 acres of public land in the West Forks area to CMP.

During oral arguments last week, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy suggested that Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage deliberately negotiated leases without lawmakers' knowledge, raising questions about whether those deals violated a constitutional amendment passed in 1993.

It requires that any lease of public lands that substantially alters its use must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, quoted Murphy during the floor debate.

"That is certainly the concern of the court because of recognition that I think the court has made, that the legislature is supposed to be a constitutional partner and have the final say in these lands, but it seems as if there was a concerted effort to keep the Legislature in the dark both times," said Bennett, quoting Murphy.

Bennett, a high-profile critic of the corridor and CMP, introduced an order declaring that the Legislature believes it should have approved the lease agreements.

The order, approved Tuesday by both the House and the Senate, doesn't carry the force of law, but it could have an effect on the lawsuit in superior court.

That drew an objection from Republican Sen. Trey Stewart, of Presque Isle, who says the constitutional provision at issue doesn't adequately define what's meant by “altered use” of public lands, and that lawmakers should have clarified that instead of trying to influence court proceedings.

"You may not like the corridor for whatever reasons you may or may not have. But the point is that this precedent that's being set by this document, and what we're trying to do, who we're trying to influence and the other branches (of government) that we're trying to say, 'You acted inappropriately and we're going to have this branch hold you accountable, but we're not going to change the law. We're not going to change the law. We're not going to do our actual job,'" Stewart said.

But Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, says lawmakers did try to clarify the law last year, but the Legislature was forced to adjourn early because of the pandemic.

"And then the administration renegotiated the public lands deal behind our backs when we had made it very clear that it wasn't supposed to do that," he said.

The Mills administration and the Bureau of Public lands last week rejected those characterizations and assertions by Justice Murphy that its lease agreement with CMP was done without lawmakers' knowledge.

BPL also contends that the lease agreement negotiated during the LePage administration and signed off by the Attorney General's Office -- then overseen by Mills, the former AG -- did not require lawmakers' approval because there's already a transmission line running through the property and therefore the altered use provision was not in play.

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