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CMP says it's unaffected by foreign government electioneering ban, yet is lobbying against it

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo, power lines converge on a Central Maine Power substation in Pownal, Maine.

Central Maine Power says it's unaffected by legislation to ban foreign government-owned entities from electioneering in ballot campaigns, but for months it's been lobbying against the effort.

The proposal has been approved in the House and Senate and would preempt a citizens-initiated version from appearing on the November ballot if it becomes law. Lobbying disclosure reports show that CMP has joined Versant Power and the Maine Forest Products Council in attempting to convince lawmakers to defeat the bill.

Hydro-Quebec, which has opposed previous iterations of electioneering bans on companies partially or wholly owned by foreign governments, also reported lobbying the bill. Benjamin Dudley, of Hydro-Quebec's U.S. division, said the company took no position on the current proposal and only reported lobbying activity "out of an abundance of caution."

It’s unclear exactly how much CMP has spent lobbying legislators and the Mills administration against the foreign government electioneering ban.

In Maine, lobbying disclosure rules require reporting specific spending amounts on individual bills only when an organization’s paid advocacy exceeds $1,000 on that bill over the course of a month. The most recent lobbying reports cover the period through May.

The opposition from Versant Power and the forest products council had been expected. Versant Power is owned by ENMAX, a corporation owned by the city of Calgary, Alberta, a foreign government that, under the bill, would trigger the electioneering restriction on entities that are wholly owned by a foreign government.

Hydro-Quebec, which helped inspire the electioneering ban during its multi-million dollar campaign backing CMP’s transmission line through western Maine, is owned by the Quebec government. Sophie Brochu, the company's former president, personally testified against the 2021 version of the proposal, arguing that its passage would have left the company defenseless against corridor opponents.

The forest products council is an industry group with members who might also be subject to the prospective ban, which includes entities in which a foreign government owns or controls 5% or more of the company’s ownership.

Questions about whether CMP’s ownership might also be subject to the prohibition were posed by Maine Public in November when the campaign pushing the electioneering ban submitted its signatures to put the legislation before voters this year. CMP is owned by Avangrid, which is in turn owned by the Spain-based company Iberdrola. An investment fund created by the Qatari government has an 8% ownership stake in Iberdrola.

At the time, a former CMP spokesperson told Maine Public that the company would not be affected by the electioneering ban because Avangrid is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has no greater than 5% foreign ownership.

CMP still holds that view. When asked to explain its lobbying against the foreign electioneering ban in the Legislature, spokesperson Jonathan Breed maintained that the company still believes it will be unaffected by it if it becomes law. Instead, Breed described the proposal as unconstitutional and a possible deterrent to future renewable energy developers.

“Besides this legislation being unconstitutional, we believe LD 1610 will have a range of unintended consequences, including slowing renewable generation growth in Maine by creating legal uncertainty for outside wind and solar developers looking to invest in our state,” Breed said in a statement.

Asked if CMP would campaign this year against the proposal should the ballot initiative advance instead of the legislative version, Breed said the company is strictly focused on the “unconstitutional seizure of Maine’s electric grid.”

Breed was referencing a separate ballot initiative that aims to seize CMP and Versant’s assets and replace the companies’ current ownership with a nonprofit run by an elected board. Both utilities have raised more than $18 million opposing the measure, which will appear before voters in November.

Judy Long, a spokesperson for Versant, indicated in November that the foreign government electioneering ban might prohibit the company from similar campaign spending in the future if it goes into effect.

“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 at the time.

CMP has met the threshold for specific spending reporting on lobbying disclosure on several bills — including a pair of dueling bills that would overhaul subsidies encouraging solar development — but not the foreign government electioneering ban.

Versant, by contrast, has made a concerted effort to defeat the proposal. Lobbying records show it spent more than $4,000 in May trying to persuade legislators and the executive branch to kill the bill.

The ban’s prospects of becoming law via the Legislature are uncertain despite polling showing that the concept is popular. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a similar measure in 2021, citing constitutional concerns and prompting advocates to launch the ballot initiative.

Under Maine law, the Legislature can act on qualified ballot initiatives and preempt the need for the legislation to go to voters. State lawmakers rarely do so. The Legislature hasn’t approved a qualified ballot initiative in 16 years.

Protect Maine Elections, the group pushing the ballot initiative, has lobbied the Legislature to enact the proposal outright. Free Speech for People and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, two groups advocating for less money in elections, have joined the cause.

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