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Mainers to vote on consumer-owned utility ballot question next fall

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines span the Androscoggin River in Auburn, Mane.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines span the Androscoggin River in Auburn, Mane.

A proposal to dramatically change Maine's electric utility landscape has qualified for next November’s ballot, according to the Maine secretary of state’s office.

The organization Our Power wants to force Central Maine Power and Versant to sell all of their assets to a nonprofit organization that would take over supplying electricity to most Maine consumers. Under the proposal, the entity known as Pine Tree Power Co. would be run by a board of elected officers, but the nonprofit would contract out the daily operation and maintenance of the power grid to private businesses.

Supporters contend that the consumer-owned utility model will ultimately result in lower rates and better reliability because Pine Tree Power will be locally controlled and managed.

"I think it's clear that we have really high rates here in Maine and that people are sick of that,” said state Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth, who helped gather signatures for the ballot initiative. “So I think that Maine people will see through all of the disinformation that Central Maine Power and Versant are already putting out there to confuse us and distract us from the fact that our rates are high, our service is bad and that we Maine people can do better if we own and control our grid."

The referendum grew out of frustration — particularly among CMP customers — about rising costs, billing problems and prolonged power outages in Maine. Supporters also point out that both CMP and Versant are owned by foreign companies who they say are more beholden to investors and shareholders than Maine electricity ratepayers.

Maine's two largest electric utilities as well as their allies have already spent millions of dollars to oppose the consumer-owned utility proposal and have pledged to continue fighting what they portray as a government takeover of private businesses. They argue that the proposal could cost upwards of $13.5 billion and would take years to complete if proponents were able to prevail in the inevitable legal battles.

Opponents are amassing a growing list of business groups and labor unions opposed to the consumer-owned utility. They question whether the model will lower costs, given the billions of dollars in bonds that will be required to complete the forced sale, and have suggested that the elected board will be subject to political pressure.

Additionally, the No Blank Checks campaign said it has gathered enough signatures to offer a ballot initiative of their own next fall. That competing referendum seeks to block or stymie the consumer-owned utility by requiring voters to approve any new “government debt” in excess of $1 billion.

No Blank Checks said it has collected nearly 104,000 signatures — well above the 63,067 valid signatures that will be needed to also qualify for next November’s ballot.

“We have a couple more months before we have to turn in our signatures for No Blank Checks and it became clear that state officials were pretty busy processing other petitions, so we decided to wait a few more weeks and take the opportunity to talk to more voters and collect some more signatures,” Willy Ritch, who is running the No Blank Checks campaign, said in a statement on Wednesday.