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Janet Mills gets tough on CMP. Here’s what that could mean for her election chances

Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. A tug-of-war over the future of Central Maine Power is continuing behind the scenes with a pair of proposed referendums next year. The company is also fighting stiff opposition from environmentalists who oppose its proposed 145-mile transmission line to bring Canadian hydro-electric power into New England.
Robert F. Bukaty
Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. A tug-of-war over the future of Central Maine Power is continuing behind the scenes with a pair of proposed referendums next year. The company is also fighting stiff opposition from environmentalists who oppose its proposed 145-mile transmission line to bring Canadian hydro-electric power into New England.

In this week’s Pulse: Accountability proposed for Maine’s unpopular electric utilities; Tom Saviello drops out of race for governor; Susan Collins and Angus King could join forces on election overhaul.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has proposed stiffer financial penalties for poor customer service, inaccurate billing, and the lengthy storm outages that have dogged Central Maine Power and Versant Power for the last several years — a move with both political implications and electoral ones that could affect her ongoing bid for a second term.

The accountability standards for Maine’s two investor-owned electricity providers are the culmination of an idea Mills first floated in her 2020 State of State address and, more recently, when she vetoed a bill last summer aimed at seizing the utilities’ assets and handing over operations to an elected board.

From a political standpoint, Mills’ accountability bill might serve as a tangible fulfillment of her repeated vow to check the monopoly utilities’ grip on ratepayers despite customer service rankings that, for CMP in particular, continue to be among the nation’s worst. After all, for CMP critics, the governor’s tough rhetoric on those issues has been difficult to square with her early support for the company’s transmission corridor. She backed the project early in 2019 and all the way through a referendum aimed at scuttling it, an effort voters approved in a landslide last November.

Mills has repeatedly tried to create a distinction between her corridor support, which she says is linked to her climate change goals, and her views of CMP.

But managing those divergent views has been difficult, particularly when the corridor referendum made it clear that many voters aren’t making the same distinction. Nearly every municipality in CMP’s service area voted to kill the project, even though many have no vantage of the corridor and are unaffected by it. That’s why it’s hard to make the argument that the referendum was fueled by NIMBYism, although some in the national press have tried anyway.

It’s also why many have described the result as a referendum on CMP.

Mills has not publicly offered her thoughts on the matter, apart from pressing CMP to respect the will of the voters and stop construction (which the company did, weeks after the vote). But it would appear that she’s acutely aware that many ratepayers are fed up with the company. And perhaps she is, too.

Last summer, during a press conference to explain her veto of the bill that would have seized CMP and Versant assets to create a consumer-owned utility, she foreshadowed some initiatives that are included in her new bill.

When asked whether she thought the Public Utilities Commission had done enough to police CMP and Versant, she first suggested that previous iterations of the regulator had not. She then suggested that poor utility performance should come with harsher sanctions, including steps that “ultimately would force a company to divest itself of its assets in Maine — get rid of CMP for instance, theoretically.”

Mills added, "How does that happen, has it ever happened, could it happen? I am just throwing that out there because I think it is a really interesting idea."

Mills’ proposal outlines specific steps to build off her press conference musings. It requires the PUC to issue quarterly report cards on the transmission and distribution utilities' performance. Two consecutive failing quarters in a row could yield fines of $1 million per quarter. Consistent failure could prompt the PUC to require the utility to sell to a qualified buyer, including a nonprofit, quasi-governmental operation which, oddly enough, is similar to what supporters of the consumer-owned power initiative hope voters will approve next year.

Our Power, the group spearheading that initiative, is not satisfied. On Thursday, it announced that it’s opposing the governor’s bill. Among the reasons: The PUC’s “unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats can already create performance standards” and assess penalties; the proposal’s failure to address energy costs; the bill puts too much trust in a PUC that hasn’t held CMP and Versant accountable for its failings; and the bill creates an unclear path to a consumer utility.

”It is time to re-imagine our grid as a public good, rather than a profit opportunity for investors who don’t share our love of this State and don’t care about our future,” Our Power board president John Brautigam said in a statement. “The people of Maine should — and will— have the chance to decide this question.”

Brautigam was referencing the ongoing effort to get the consumer-owned utility proposal on the ballot. Organizers had originally hoped to do that this year, but recently pushed the effort to 2023.

That means CMP, and to a lesser extent Versant, won’t be on the ballot at the same time that Mills is.

Does that diminish the electoral implications of her proposal? Unclear.

It’s possible that the accountability bill could help Mills create some distance between the governor and her Republican challenger, former Gov. Paul LePage. She and LePage backed the CMP corridor, albeit for different reasons. (Importing Canadian hydropower has long been one of LePage’s white whales; he was also paid by CMP to lobby on behalf of the corridor after he left office in 2018.)

Whether voters will reward Mills for utility accountability could be determined by how legislative debate surrounding the bill unfolds and, more importantly, if it passes. Right now, its chances look promising. The proposal has bipartisan co-sponsors on the Legislature’s Energy and Utilities Committee, which is where it will be vetted before the floor votes that will determine its fate.

Squishy support, opposition?

The governor’s utility accountability bill also has bipartisan detractors, most notably among lawmakers associated with the consumer-owned utility effort.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, described the bill as “fatally flawed” in Our Power’s press statement.

Bennett’s statement doesn’t necessarily mean he and other consumer-owned utility advocates in the Legislature won’t ultimately vote for the governor’s bill. In fact, he told the Bangor Daily News that he might support it even though he views it as falling short of its stated goals.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear where Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, stands on the proposal.

Berry, a vocal CMP critic and a leading ally of the Our Power group, told the Portland Press Herald this week that he planned to co-sponsor the governor’s bill even though the proposal wasn’t the one he would have written.

However, Berry was not among those offering support testimonials when the governor unveiled her bill on Wednesday. He told Maine Public Wednesday via text that he plans to evaluate the bill’s “potential impacts.” Asked again Thursday whether he still supported the bill, Berry referred Maine Public to Our Power’s statement opposing it. The statement included comments from state lawmakers affiliated with the group, but none from Berry.

When asked if Our Power’s opposition statement was also his position, he replied via text that, “I welcome the conversation but have not said I can vote for the bill.”

No Saviello

Meanwhile, Mills won’t have to worry about a challenge this November from another vocal opponent of the CMP corridor.

Tom Saviello, a former longtime state lawmaker who helped lead the Question 1 campaign, announced this week that he would not run for governor. Saviello had been hinting about a potential bid for months on a platform that appeared largely focused on the CMP project. Both Mills and LePage support the 145-mile-long corridor.

Saviello is a former Democrat and former Republican who is now unenrolled from either party. He said the potential spoiler effect of running as an independent factored into his decision. While ranked-choice voting is used in party primaries for governor with three or more candidates, Maine’s Constitution does not allow the ranked-choice process during the general election for governor.

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello speaks at an election night gathering of opponents of Central Maine Power's proposed hydropower transmission corridor, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Farmington, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Former state Sen. Tom Saviello speaks at an election night gathering of opponents of Central Maine Power's proposed hydropower transmission corridor, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Farmington, Maine.

“In my time in Maine there have been four times where a third-party candidate’s ballot presence secured the win for another candidate,” he said in a statement. “This resulted in good governors, ‘so-so’ governors and a disaster. You can decide yourself which one is which.”

On the latter comment: Saviello endorsed Mills during the 2018 election. While the two are on the opposite sides of the CMP corridor issue, they seem to mostly get along, both hail from western Maine and Saviello has a store in Mills’ hometown of Farmington.

He famously clashed with LePage, however. When Saviello was serving in the Maine Senate, the former governor called him “the most repugnant human being I’ve ever seen” at one point.

Neither Mills nor LePage should expect an endorsement this year, though, according to the declared noncandidate.

Saviello also laid out six other reasons for not running. They included the pitfalls of party politics, his desire to truly retire and the fact that he expects to continue fighting against the CMP corridor in court and in regulatory arenas.

But Saviello also pointed out that, at age 71, he doesn’t envision himself identifying with younger Mainers and doesn’t know what is important to them when it comes to government.

“I will point out the two leading candidates running for this office are older than I am,” Saviello wrote. “They too should be asked how they will identify with this generation. Policies they set could have a dramatic impact on this generation for years to come.”

A Collins, King merger?

For the past several weeks, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, have been working on separate proposals to overhaul the counting and certifying of votes in presidential elections. Now, it’s possible their respective efforts could be combined.

This week, King and Democratic leaders on the judiciary and rules committees released a draft bill aimed at preventing partisans from hijacking the counting of presidential electoral votes via the Electoral Count Act, a law that outlines how Congress handles disputes over state election results and their chosen electors.

The counting of states' electoral votes has long been considered a ministerial act by Congress. That changed on Jan. 6 of last year, when Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump tried to reject the results in swing states, while Trump himself tried to convince former Vice President Mike Pence that he could single-handedly reject state electors. Pence, following the consensus view of legal scholars, deemed he had no authority to do that, which is why some of Trump’s followers were calling for his hanging when they breached the Capitol.

The bill from King and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, and Dick Durbin, of Illinois, attempts to clear up any ambiguities that might create a repeat of that day. It also ensures that state legislatures cannot try to overturn results by appointing different electors after Election Day, while providing more time for election officials to complete recounts and tightening rules for members of Congress who object to electors or vote counts.

Collins has been working on a separate proposal with a bipartisan group of Senators. The same group was expected to meet with Klobuchar, who leads the Senate Rules Committee, Wednesday evening. That alone is a signal that the two proposals could be merged into one. Additionally, King, Klobuchar and Durbin said in a statement that their proposal is designed to inform the work of the bipartisan group.

Those developments, plus the acquiescence of Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, suggest that the proposal might have a chance in the perpetually gridlocked Senate.

Nonetheless, Trump is doing his best to scuttle the proposal from afar. This week he said the effort to clarify that the vice president’s role is ministerial is evidence that Pence “could have overturned the election!” He also singled out Collins, calling her “Whacky Susan Collins.”

Negotiations around the bill are expected to continue for some time before an actual bill is written.

Collins and Supreme Court nominee

Collins continues to draw national attention, both because she’s viewed as one of the more “gettable” Republican votes for a forthcoming Supreme Court nominee but also because of comments critical of Biden on the issue.

Her comments to ABC News last Sunday that Biden’s handling of the nomination “has been clumsy at best” made headlines. She accused Biden of further politicizing the Supreme Court by reiterating his campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman, although she added she would “welcome the appointment of a Black female to the court.”

President Trump made potential justices’ positions on abortion a litmus test of his presidency. And he relied heavily on a list of nominees that was reportedly heavily influenced by leaders of The Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that helped Trump reshape the judicial branch.

Collins has not gone as far as some Republicans in criticizing Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the high court. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, for instance, called it “affirmative racial discrimination” and told a radio station that “this new justice will probably not get a single Republican vote.”

This is all coming before Biden has even announced a nominee. Of course, some Democratic senators vowed to oppose whoever Trump put forward as a nominee to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to the 2020 presidential election.

In comments published by The New York Times later this week, Collins acknowledged the delicate line Republicans may have to walk in the nomination process given the optics and the party’s reputation among many Black voters.

“The idea that race and gender should be the No. 1 and No. 2 criteria is not as it should be,” Collins said, according to the paper. “On the other hand, there are many qualified Black women for this post and given that Democrats, regrettably, have had some success in trying to paint Republicans as anti-Black, it may make it more difficult to reject a Black jurist.”

As discussed in last week’s newsletter, Biden is likely to make sure whoever he nominates has the support of all 48 Democrats and the two independents (including Maine’s Sen. King) so he doesn’t need Republican support. But there are scenarios where he’d need some Republican votes, with Collins regarded as one of the more likely.

Coming up…

Below is a roundup of a few potentially newsworthy or noteworthy items coming up in the next week in the Legislature, Congress or elsewhere in Maine politics:

  • State of the State – Perhaps the biggest event of the week will happen at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, when Gov. Mills delivers her State of the State address. The speech will be delivered in-person at the State House and will be broadcast live on Maine Public’s television and radio stations as well as livestreamed at mainepublic.org.
  • Lobster defense – On Tuesday, the Marine Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill to create a legal defense fund for the lobster industry as well as a work session on a bill for an impact fund to help lobstermen affected by whale-related closures of federal fishing grounds.
  • Solar farms – Also Tuesday, the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will receive an update from a group charged with examining the proliferation of large-scale solar energy installations on farmlands.
  • Solitary confinement – The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hear testimony on Wednesday on a bill to prohibit solitary confinement in Maine prisons. The practice has been dramatically reduced in recent years, but opponents say not enough.
  • Juvenile restraints – And the same committee will hold a hearing on a bill to prohibit the use of restraints, chemical sprays or tasers on juvenile inmates. The Maine Department of Corrections has been reviewing reports of such practices at the state’s only youth detention facility, the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

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