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CMP, Versant oppose Janet Mills' bill for tighter accountability

Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine.

Maine's two largest electricity providers, and the activists who want to seize their assets and operations, are both opposing Gov. Janet Mills' utility accountability bill.

The pushback from the competing factions highlights how the governor's proposal attempts to split the difference between the status quo and a consumer-owned utility scheme that voters might get a chance to approve at the ballot box next year.

The governor's bill attempts to fulfill a commitment she made last summer when she vetoed the proposal that would create a consumer-owned utility, an initiative she dubbed as politically expedient but hastily drafted.

Still, Mills vowed to crack down on Maine’s two largest providers, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, and her bill empowers the state's regulator, the Public Utilities Commission, to assess steeper fines, audit finances, protect whistleblowers and, if a utility is deemed unfit, force the companies to sell their assets to a qualified buyer.

"The combined impact of all five elements of the bill will provide greater accountability and greater ratepayer protection against high rates or poor service," said William Harwood, who leads the Office of the Public Advocate.

Harwood helped write the bill, and he spoke in favor of it during Tuesday's public hearing before the Legislature's energy committee. The bill has also won the backing of environmental groups and Republican and Democratic legislators.

But the bipartisan backing in the Legislature is not unanimous.

"The title of this legislation is a sham," said Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford. "The bill ensures nothing, certainly not the accountability of our foreign-owned utility monopolies."

Bennett is an outspoken critic of CMP and Versant, which he often describes as corporate bullies that the PUC has allowed to run roughshod over ratepayers. He framed the proposal as further entrusting utility accountability with the political whims of governors and their appointees to the PUC.

"Trying to create accountability of these electric monopolies through consolidating more power to the governor's office and the PUC is the path of this proposal," he said. "It's wrongheaded and ignores the fundamental problem: foreign investor ownership."

CMP and its parent company Avangrid are both controlled by a holding company in Spain called Iberdrola. Versant is owned by Enmax, an energy company based in Canada.

Critics like Bennett contend that the distant ownership, combined with Maine's regulatory structure, makes the utilities unaccountable to ratepayers.

The solution, they say, is the proposal to force the two companies to sell their assets and turn over operations to an elected board — something supporters have taken to calling "energy democracy."

CMP and Versant fiercely oppose that effort and they also testified against the governor's bill on Tuesday.

"We believe the legislature already got it right," CMP president Joe Purington told lawmakers Tuesday. "The PUC has the authority it needs to do its job, to ensure safe, adequate service at just and reasonable rates. How do we know that? Recent history."

Purington told lawmakers that the PUC's recent penalty for poor customer service and a botched billing system rollout resulted in more than $12 million in lost profits.

The utility regulator recently lifted that penalty while broadening its probe into CMP's management practices.

From Purington's perspective, that's accountability, and steeper financial penalties or a clearer pathway to divestiture would be punitive.

Officials from Versant Power agreed.

But several environmental groups are backing the governor's proposal, framing it as a good first step to ensure that the utilities prepare for climate change and including connection to renewable energy sources as a performance metric.

The Legislature's energy committee is expected to continue reviewing the bill before sending it to the House and Senate for approval.

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