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Politics

How the quest for rural broadband in Maine could get political

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Steve Mistler
/
Maine Public
Charlie Dingman moderates the special town meeting in Leeds Nov. 10 when residents approved a $2.2 million bond to create a municipal broadband network to extend high-speed internet to unserved residents.

In this week’s Pulse: The politics of municipal broadband; a potential ranked-choice voting GOP primary; another special legislative election; Mills’ approval rating. 

When the Legislature last summer approved creating a new broadband agency to manage the massive influx of federal dollars to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas, it was an example of increasingly rare bipartisanship.

The vote to create the Maine Connectivity Authority was unanimous in the Senate. The House didn’t even take a roll call vote, choosing instead to enact the proposal “under the hammer.”

Before signing the bill into law in June, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills joined Republican state Sen. Richard Bennett, of Oxford, in April to tout its importance.

"The low population density of rural Maine and our funky geography and terrain has made it unprofitable for the private sector to expand their networks independently," said Mills, adding that the new agency would leverage new state and federal money to either partner with private providers or rural communities to make investments that for-profit companies won't on their own.

But there are a lot of questions about how exactly the new broadband agency will award grants and whether it will favor municipal broadband networks like the one the town of Leeds created via special town meeting last week.

As residents in Leeds discovered, municipal broadband is a threat to big internet service providers that often have near-monopolies in the rural communities now trying to deliver high-speed internet to residents who can’t currently get it. That was clear in the runup to Leeds’ ultimate approval of a $2.2 million bond that, in its current form, would contract Machias-based Axiom Technologies LLC to construct the poles and fiber wire needed to reach residents that Spectrum has decided not to because it’s focused on customer density. Spectrum, owned by multibillion-dollar provider Charter Communications, also bid on the project, but town officials rejected the offer.

Some Leeds residents suspect Spectrum and Charter paid for the glossy pamphlets that were hand-delivered two days before voters ratified the bond during a special town meeting. The pamphlets framed the proposal as a government-run boondoggle that would lead to higher taxes and questionable service.

The pamphlets were distributed by Maine Civic Action, a spinoff of the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group. Charter's regional spokeswoman Lara Pritchard acknowledged that the company provided funding to the Maine Policy Institute, but she ignored follow-up questions from Maine Public that sought to answer whether Charter's financial support was specifically designed to fund Maine Civic Action's campaign against municipal broadband initiatives like the one in Leeds.

Nevertheless, town officials that pursue similar broadband initiatives may encounter robust lobbying efforts by internet service providers. Debate over municipal broadband could also become more partisan.

The municipal broadband advocacy site muninetworks.org estimates that 600 communities nationally have some kind of municipal broadband service, a number that's poised to grow amid the massive injection of federal funds to create or improve high-speed internet in rural areas. However, roughly 18 Republican-leaning states actually prohibit or impose constraints on municipal broadband, and earlier this year, GOP members of Congress introduced a bill that would outlaw new ones nationwide — a bill that went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House.

Supporters of these constraints or bans essentially make the case that the Maine Civic Action did when contacted by Maine Public for the story about Leeds initiative. Essentially, they argue that publicly run networks are too costly and less innovative than those run by private sector networks. Supporters of municipal broadband argue that such networks promote competition, lower prices and reach rural customers faster because private providers target customer density rather than reaching all of them.

When the Biden administration originally drafted the infrastructure bill that the president signed into law this week, it included provisions that would encourage municipal broadband networks. Negotiations with Republicans left the broadband provision on municipal networks somewhat neutral: It doesn’t prioritize municipal broadband for grant applications, but it also allows it. It also does not preempt state laws that have prohibitions or restrictions on municipal broadband.

That would appear to let states determine how municipal broadband will figure into its allocation of millions of dollars in federal funds. How that will look in Maine is a bit unclear. The new broadband agency is just spinning up and its director, Andrew Butcher, hasn’t been confirmed yet by the Maine Senate. In a statement provided to Maine Public this week, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson largely steered clear of the debate over municipal broadband, saying that the new Connectivity Authority is just getting started.

“Right now, ConnectMaine provides planning and infrastructure implementation support,” she said. “As we move forward, the Connectivity Authority will continue those efforts and will also work to leverage private and local investment, along with public investment. How these funding streams will come together to fund projects will be determined through collaboration with communities, ISPs, both large and small, and others. That is a process that we are beginning to undertake now.”

Third GOP candidate in 2nd District could make it a ranked-choice primary

Former Congressman Bruce Poliquin has more competition in his bid to retake the 2nd Congressional District seat from Democratic Rep. Jared Golden.

Liz Caruso of the tiny western Maine town of Caratunk is the latest Republican hoping to thwart Poliquin’s political comeback. The 52-year-old launched her campaign this week after getting a taste of statewide politics as a spokesperson for the Question 1 campaign to block Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line.

It’s too early to say whether Caruso’s entrance changes anything for Poliquin, who lost a close race to Golden in 2018 after representing the district for two terms. But it could complicate things.

Congressional races in Maine with three or more candidates use the ranked-choice voting process, which is how Poliquin lost to Golden three years ago despite receiving more votes (but still less than a majority) on the first count. And state Rep. Michael Perkins from Oakland has been campaigning for the Republican nomination since June.

Caruso is staking out political positions even farther to the right than Poliquin in a congressional district that voted for President Donald Trump twice.

Her priorities include to “stop Big Tech censorship and Big Government overreach” while defending religious, Second Amendment and “medical freedoms” (in other words, opposing vaccine mandates). She also opposes “critical race theory” (which isn’t taught in Maine schools) and wants to ensure “election integrity.”

These are popular Republican talking points across the country as the party tries to energize its base headed into the critical midterms. Early indications are that personality, life experience and wealth could also be a factor in the CD2 Republican primary, however.

Caruso, a registered Maine guide who has run a bed & breakfast as well as an outdoor recreation company, talked about voters wanting someone other than “career politicians and elitists.” Those are both potential jabs at Poliquin, a wealthy former investment manager who also ran for governor and the U.S. Senate before winning the House seat in 2014.

“I have a real respect for Bruce Poliquin. I voted for him years ago,” Caruso told Maine Public. “I just think that with all Mainers have been through in this corridor fight and in the chaos of DC, that they have had enough with politicians. They just want a real Mainer, someone who can identify with rural Maine, who can truly represent them.”

Perkins has also cast himself as the “average Joe” while saying Poliquin is “not one of us.”

“We need a normal person in there. We don’t need an elitist,” Perkins said told the Lewiston Sun Journal in August.

But it takes money to win a congressional race these days, and Poliquin had nearly $870,000 in his campaign bank account as of the end of September. The deep-pocketed National Republican Congressional Committee is already also promoting Poliquin and regularly attacking Golden.

Special State House election

Speaking of elections, voters in Gorham and Scarborough have another one coming up even though they just went to the polls a bit over two weeks ago.

The secretary of state’s office has scheduled a special election on Tuesday, Jan. 11, to fill the Maine House District 27 seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Kyle Bailey. The Democrat resigned his seat after one year, citing “an exciting professional opportunity.”

Democrats have already tapped former state Sen. Jim Boyle to run for the seat. Republicans, meanwhile, are expected to caucus this weekend in order to formally nominate Tim Thorsen.

The District 27 seat has been held by a Democrat since the boundaries were redrawn about a decade ago. But the outcome of the Jan. 11 special election will not affect the balance of power in the Maine House, where Democrats hold 80 of the 151 seats.

CMP bills kept alive – just in case

Lawmaking is often compared to sausage-making because of the complexity — and messiness — of both.

Opponents of the CMP corridor are already looking ahead to implementing the law enacted by voters earlier this month when they approved Question 1. That law will, among other things, prohibit the construction of the corridor through the “Upper Kennebec Region” while requiring legislative approval for any future “high-impact electric transmission lines.”

But on Wednesday, the majority of lawmakers present during a committee meeting voted to “table” — essentially, put on hold but keep alive — two technical bills dealing with how state regulators review transmission line proposals that aren’t necessary for reliability or local generation. Both bills, L.D.s 170 and 1587, were sparked by concerns about CMP’s project.

Rep. Seth Berry, a leading critic of the corridor and co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said “technical issues” often arise when implementing laws approved by referendum. Berry said questions will arise out of Question 1, although he didn’t give specifics.

“One of (the bills) might serve as a vehicle to correct any technical issues that could come up in the implementation,” said Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

Of course, CMP and its partners in the New England Clean Energy Connect are challenging the Question 1 results in court in hopes of salvaging the $1 billion project to feed Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts. The tabled bills could potentially become vehicles to respond to any court developments as well.

Poll puts Mills in the middle

Gov. Janet Mills had a 57% approval rating, according to poll results released this week by Morning Consult.

That puts Mills, a Democrat who is up for reelection next year, around the middle of the pack (17th out of 50) among her gubernatorial colleagues nationwide. But Mills’ approval rating is the lowest among New England governors.

Vermont’s Gov. Phil Scott had the nation’s highest approval rating at 79%, despite being a Republican in a decidedly blue state. But the two other Republican governors in left-leaning New England also scored fairly well in the Morning Consult poll, with Massachusetts’ Gov. Charlie Baker at 72% and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu at 67%.

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