Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar foreign nationals and certain foreign corporations from spending to influence ballot campaigns. It is designed to close a loophole in Maine election law, but it could also have an immediate impact on Hydro-Quebec, the electricity supplier for a controversial $1 billion transmission line through western Maine.
Government-owned Hydro-Quebec has called the project the biggest sales contract in its entire history, and it’s fighting to continue spending money to convince Maine voters not to scuttle it at the ballot box this November.
The proposal to prohibit foreign spending on Maine ballot campaigns is sponsored by independent state Rep. Kent Ackley, of Monmouth. He told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that his bill isn’t just about Central Maine Power’s transmission project.
"Whether you are for or against, the CMP corridor, every Mainer ought to be disturbed when we see a foreign company, such as Hydro-Quebec, controlled completely by a foreign country, attempt to buy a Maine election," Ackley said.
Hydro-Quebec joined the campaign last fall by forming a ballot question committee to support the project, and it has since been buying print and digital ads, touting its purported environmental benefits to Maine.
But the Canadian utility’s involvement immediately raised questions about foreign influence in a Maine election and highlights an election law loophole, first reported by Maine Public Radio, that allows foreign nationals and companies controlled by foreign governments to spend on state ballot initiatives. Ackley says his bill closes that loophole.
"If the shoe were on the other foot, and the state of Maine was exploiting a legal loophole attempting to influence a Quebec vote, I would imagine Quebec voters would be just as outraged as the voters of Maine are today," Ackley says.
Ackley's bill is backed by Democratic state Senate President Troy Jackson, who says it is the kind of check that’s needed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which has led to an explosion in campaign spending across the country.
"Regardless of your opinions about that 2010 decision, I believe there is widespread agreement on the need to curb unregulated campaign spending and create a more ethical campaign finance system," Jackson said.
And former Senate President Rick Bennett, a Republican, also supports the bill, which he says fixes a "glaring deficiency" in Maine election law.
Bennett says that while federal law clearly prohibits foreign nationals and foreign companies from contributing to candidates, it is silent on state referendum campaigns.
"As foreign interests cannot contribute money to the elections of lawmakers, they ought not to be able to contribute money to the elections to make laws," Bennett says.
But opponents of the bill say it could have a chilling effect on free speech. Central Maine Power lobbyist Jim Mitchell says the measure would effectively silence Hydro-Quebec’s views on the project.
"To repress information, a portion of the argument if you will, is to disavow the central ideal of our country — freedom of expression," Mitchell says. "Our very liberty depends on the free exchange of ideas. If this bill becomes law, what's next?"
Central Maine Power has already sunk millions of dollars into the project — roughly $56 million, according to documents with the Public Utilities Commission. That's in addition to the $2.2 million spent just in the final quarter of last year by its political action committee to defeat the referendum.
The campaign spending doesn't include the cost of new opposition research, attorneys or the advertising that has intensified this year — nor the cost of a private investigator hired by CMP's political action committee to sniff out irregularities in its opponents' referendum drive.
Hydro-Quebec's campaign spending is small by comparison — about $230,000 — but it's expected to balloon if the referendum qualifies for the ballot.
"This legislation would put our company at an unfair disadvantage," says Francois Ramsay, general counsel for Hydro-Quebec.
Ramsay says that the company should have a right to publicly express its views about the project and any attempts to derail it.
"There is no doubt that we are subject to U.S. laws when we operate in the United States. Likewise, we believe we also benefit from protections of our rights, including free speech under the U.S. Constitution," Ramsay says.
Concerns about potential free speech violations were echoed by the bill's opponents, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Forest Products Council and the Industrial Energy Consumers Group — or IECG.
IECG's lobbyist Tony Buxton described the bill as an "emotional" response that could have negative consequences for foreign investors in Maine's paper mills.
"Maine has seven paper mills. Six of the seven, in all likelihood, would be prohibited by this legislation from participating in any legislation that affected them," Buxton says.
And attorney Timothy Woodcock, who has been hired to represent Hydro-Quebec, says while the federal ban on foreign contributions to political candidates is designed to prevent corruption – that’s not an issue for ballot campaigns.
"No one comes out of a referendum holding office," Woodcock says.
Rep. Kent Ackley says his bill has precedent elsewhere in the country, including 11 of the 26 states with citizen initiative laws.
And a similar measure in the City of Seattle was recently backed by the Democratic chair of the Federal Elections Commission and Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar at Harvard Law School.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will review the Maine bill over the next several days.