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Mainers may get a say on whether foreign governments can spend money to influence their votes

Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, chairman of Protect Maine Elections, speaks at the State House as proponents prepare to submit signatures for a 2023 referendum banning electioneering by foreign governments.
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, chairman of Protect Maine Elections, speaks at the State House as proponents prepare to submit signatures for a 2023 referendum banning electioneering by foreign governments.

A group hoping to bar foreign governments from electioneering in Maine referendum campaigns submitted petitions Tuesday to put its proposal on next year's ballot. The citizens’ initiative appears relatively straightforward, but it could have far-reaching implications for Maine companies partially owned by foreign governments — including at least one of the state's two main electric utilities.

The group Protect Maine Elections could not have asked for better timing.

As volunteers gathered in the State House Hall of Flags to present more than 80,000 signatures to the secretary of state, $127 million had already been spent on Maine election contests this year, flooding the airwaves with negative ads.

The group's proposal includes a provision that would join Maine in the multistate effort to amend the U.S. Constitution and reverse the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that has made such election spending by corporations and unions possible.

"But today, more than 80,000 Mainers are telling the monied interests, and the political class, that we are taking our government back," said Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, chairman of Protect Maine Elections. "It is time to restore democracy to the people. It's time to take our republic back from the carnival of corruption it has become."

Protect Maine Elections was created last year to pursue the central aim of the ballot initiative: Banning foreign governments from electioneering in Maine referendums.

"This continues as a real and present danger. We've seen foreign governments spend millions of dollars in Maine referendum campaigns," Bennett said.

Bennett was referring to electioneering by energy companies that last year dumped $90 million trying to influence a referendum aimed at scuttling Central Maine Power's transmission corridor through Western Maine.

One of the companies, Hydro-Quebec, is wholly owned by the government of Quebec, and it benefited from a loophole in state lawthat allows foreign companies to campaign for, or against, referendums.

Bennett and other legislators tried to stop Hydro-Quebec's multimillion-dollar electioneering efforts, but a bill to do just that was vetoed last year by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills amid concerns that it would unfairly sideline companies from campaigns affecting their interests.

Democratic state Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth co-sponsored that bill and now she's backing the ballot initiative that would definitively prohibit companies like Hydro-Quebec from participating in future ballot campaigns.

"The current level of spending, which increases every year, is poisonous to our democracy," she said. "But this initiative is the antidote that Maine voters are asking for."

At least one of Maine's two largest electricity providers — Versant — does not see it that way.

That's because a provision in the initiative defines a foreign-government influenced entity as one wholly owned by a foreign government, or one in which a government owns or controls 5% or more of the company's ownership.

In a statement, Versant spokesperson Judy Long said the provision may bar the company from electioneering in referendums because Versant is owned by ENMAX, a corporation owned by the City of Calgary, Alberta — a foreign government.

"That is a strong concern for us given the number of important energy-related issues that we may feel obligated to have a voice in — whether to support or oppose or simply inform —  to the benefit of our customers and employees," Long said in a statement.

CMP is owned by Avangrid, which is turn owned by the Spain-based company Iberdrola. The Iberdrola ownership by itself is unlikely to trigger the electioneering ban. However, an investment fund created by the Qatari government has an 8% ownership stake Iberdrola.

But in a written statement, CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said the referendum would not apply to the company because its parent company, Avangrid, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has no greater than 5% foreign ownership.

Both CMP and Versant are expected to spend heavily next year trying to defeat a separate referendum that would allow a private nonprofit to take over their assets, which means the issue of foreign ownership and electioneering could become a campaign issue.

And that could be a boon for supporters of the foreign electioneering ban, especially if voters view it as simply as Democratic Congressman Jared Golden who joined Tuesday's State House rally.

"Does anyone want foreign money to influence American elections?" Golden asked the crowd.

"No!" they said in response.

"Simple answer. I think we can win this one," he said.

Maine would become the eighth state to institute such a ban if the measure is certified and voters feel the same way next year.

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