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Seventeen months after voters blocked CMP, nine jurors could decide corridor’s fate

A protester holds a sign outside the Augusta Civic Center where a state meeting on Central Maine Power's proposed hydropower corridor is taking place, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A protester holds a sign outside the Augusta Civic Center where a state meeting on Central Maine Power's proposed hydropower corridor is taking place, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

The odyssey of the $1 billion transmission project through western Maine has been playing out in painstaking detail this week during a jury trial that could determine whether the project is ever completed.

The trial has major implications for the New England power grid as well as Massachusetts’ and other states’ abilities to meet ambitious climate goals.

But those implications could extend far beyond our region.

The trial is being closely watched by the U.S. and international energy industry because it could foreshadow future conflicts over transmission projects. There’s a push to rapidly expand transmission line capacity to accommodate the electrification of houses, cars and heating systems. But siting new transmission lines is rarely easy because of NIMBY opposition and challenges from competing energy companies.

The trial stems from the 2021 referendum that effectively halted the project after nearly 60% of voters scuttled it. The developers of the project, the New England Clean Energy Connect LLC, a subsidiary of Central Maine Power parent company Avangrid, sued the state to invalidate the referendum and the company is the plaintiff in the case.

Nine jurors will decide if NECEC established what’s known as vested rights and if developers made good-faith investments and construction decisions after they obtained all the relevant permits. The defense, which includes the Maine Public Utilities Commission, argues that developers began preparing for a vested rights claim long before the referendum then shifted construction decisions to strengthen that claim, even as they privately acknowledged that doing so would increase their financial exposure.

The case will likely turn on whether jurors believe NECEC developers had established vested rights in good faith, or if they believe developers made cursory attempts to make that claim knowing that voters would likely halt the project.

It’s a dense trial so far, filled with discussion of project timelines, progress reports and internal memos between developers and officials from Avangrid and Iberdrola, the Spanish company that owns Avangrid and its subsidiaries.

So far, NECEC and Avangrid attorneys have attempted to establish a narrative in which project developers were constantly forced to delay and readjust construction amid a slew of legal and procedural challengers by opponents. Those opponents include competitor energy companies that stand to be impacted financially if CMP’s partner, Hydro-Quebec, is able to pump 1,200 megawatts into the regional grid.

Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled to conclude next week.

Abortion fight arrives

After weeks of being discussed but not seen, the language of Gov. Janet Mills’ bill to lift certain restrictions on later-term abortions was finally released this week. That sets the stage for the biggest, most emotional policy fight over abortion in Maine in decades.

“Certain politicians want to force people to remain pregnant against the advice of their doctor, and Mainers deserve to be able to get medical care from a provider they trust in their home state,” said Nicole Clegg, acting CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

“Maine does not need this. We do not want this,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield. “It is the government's responsibility to support families to support mothers and to support children, and this does nothing but destroy all of them.”

The bill, L.D. 1619, would allow post-viability abortions (starting around 24 weeks) “when it is necessary in the professional judgment of a physician.” Current law only allows abortions so late in a pregnancy “to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Mills and abortion rights supporters say such instances are rare and typically only occur when a fetus has been diagnosed with a severe, fatal disorder or when carrying the baby to full term puts the mother in jeopardy. And they say the proposed change is necessary to allow such women to avoid having to travel to other states. Right now, no Maine doctors are willing to perform such procedures.

Republicans such as Keim quickly responded by calling the proposal “evil,” “depraved” and “barbaric” during a fiery press conference on Wednesday. They accused supporters of wanting to allow abortions right up to the point of birth.

It’s notable that all six of the primary speakers during the GOP press conference were women: Keim, Reps. Amy Arata of New Gloucester, Reagan Paul of Winterport, Rachel Henderson of Rumford, Laurel Libby of Auburn and Sen. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn. It was a clear signal that anti-abortion female lawmakers plan to be center stage in a policy battle that is often cast by the other side as a women’s rights issue.

Abortion rights supporters have the clear advantage headed into this debate, however.

In addition to Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson leading the charge, the bill already has enough Democratic co-sponsors to pass the House and Senate.

The bill now heads to the Judiciary Committee for a hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Republicans seize attorney general controversy

There were no major new developments (as of Friday morning) in the controversy over Attorney General Aaron Frey’s recent disclosure that he was involved in an inter-office relationship with someone he supervised.

But Republicans used the controversy involving Frey to again push to change how Maine’s attorney general is selected.

Unlike in other states, in Maine the Legislature decides who fills the three constitutional officer spots – attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer – as well as the state auditor position. That means whichever party holds more seats in the Legislature gets to pick who serves in those roles.

Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow voters to elect the three constitutional officers. This week, he told fellow lawmakers that the current process makes the positions “inherently partisan” and less accountable to voters. And he pointed to Frey’s controversy as an example.

“Would that have happened if he had to face re-election with every Maine voter instead of a select few Augusta party insiders?” Andrews said. “Having the people vote for these positions increases the accountability of those serving as constitutional officers.”

Such bills have been proposed in the past by both Democrats and Republicans only to fail in the full Legislature.

Bowdoin grad at center of national politics story

One of the two Democratic lawmakers recently expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives for participating in gun control protests is a recent Bowdoin College graduate.

Justin Pearson graduated from Bowdoin in 2017 and was active in Bowdoin Student Government, including serving as class president. According to the college, he has remained involved with Bowdoin since graduation, participating in events and speaking to classes.

Pearson and another young Tennessee lawmaker, Justin Jones, were expelled by the Republican-controlled House last week as punishment for participating in gun control protests on the House floor.

The protests were in response to a mass shooting that killed several children and staff members at a Nashville school. But the expulsion of the two young, black lawmakers by Tennessee’s conservative majority drew national attention.

Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin, said Pearson “now has a very loud bullhorn thanks to the foolish behavior of the majority of the Tennessee legislators.”

"He was always interested in issues of social justice and how can you work to make the system bend toward justice,” Rudalevige said in a piece on Pearson posted by the college. “He wanted to see how to make the system work toward better outcomes."

Both Pearson and Jones have since been temporarily re-appointed to their House seats by local officials in their districts.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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