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Parent companies of two Maine utilities funnel huge sums to oppose ballot initiative

FILE PHOTO: State Sen. Rick Bennett speaks at a press conference in April of 2021 about the effort to create a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine.
Mal Leary
Maine Public
FILE PHOTO: State Sen. Rick Bennett speaks at a press conference in April of 2021 about the effort to create a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine.

Millions of dollars are flowing into this November's referendum campaign over who should operate Maine's electric grid. But all of that political fundraising and spending is heavily tilted toward one side.

During the first six months of the year, the Our Power campaign that is asking voters to approve a seismic shift in the way electricity is distributed in Maine received roughly $236,000 in contributions. But the parent companies of Maine's two big electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, contributed more than $15 million — or 65 times as much money — to groups on the opposite side of the issue, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission.

And that financial discrepancy is playing directly into the way supporters of the ballot initiative are portraying the campaign.

"I think it really shows who they are working for and who their supporters are,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager and spokesperson for Our Power, which wants to force CMP and Versant to sell all of their assets to a nonprofit utility that would be run by an elected board. The group claims the new organization, which they refer to as a consumer-owned utility, would lower costs because the board would be beholden to the interests of ratepayers, not shareholder.

"The only two donors to these campaigns are the foreign-owned parent corporations of our utility companies,” Hockshartner said. “On our side we have over a thousand donors, 90% of whom are donors. So this is really a grassroots campaign on our side, and I think that really earns voters' trust."

CMP and Versant have portrayed the ballot question as a hostile, government takeover of their private companies that will increases costs to ratepayers. They peg the cost of the buy-out at $13.5 billion, although the ballot initiatives backers strongly refute that estimate.

Neither company actually generates the electricity that Mainers consume. But the companies own the poles, towers and other infrastructure that delivers electricity to homes and businesses. And the Our Power campaign is trying to capitalize on customers' frustration over prolonged power outages, customer service challenges and rising electricity rates.

The parent company of CMP, Avangrid, has funneled more than $18 million to Maine Affordable Energy, which is leading the fight against the Our Power campaign. But the group's executive director, Willy Rich, says more than 11,000 businesses, organizations and Mainers are also supporting the effort. And Ritch said more voters and business owners are joining the opposition campaign as they learn about the proposal.

"I mean look, it costs money to get a message out and to run a campaign,” Ritch said. “We could be asking our neighbors and we could be asking our friends and small businesses to foot the bill for that. But I don't know why we would do that when we have another source for getting the money to run that campaign. We are asking the shareholders of Avangrid to dig into their pockets and pay for it."

The parent company of Versant, Enmax, has contributed more than $8 million to another committee, Maine Energy Progress, opposing the ballot initiative. That means voters should expect a lot more television, radio and online adds as well as mailers over the next 3.5 months.