Vaccine Exemptions And NECEC: A Look At Two Of Maine's Biggest Election Battles

Jan 16, 2020

The 2020 elections won't just be about the race for the White House, Congress or the Maine Legislature. The elections will also be about vaccinations for school children and, potentially, whether Central Maine Power should be able to build a $1 billion power line that helps Massachusetts meet its renewable energy goals. 

The campaigns for both issues are well underway, and so is the spending that is designed persuade Maine voters. Nora Flaherty spoke with Chief Political Correspondent Steve Mistler for some analysis.

Flaherty: Wednesday was the reporting deadline for these ballot campaigns, but there's a big difference between them. One is definitely going to be decided by Maine voters in March, and the other one could be in November, right?

Cara Sacks of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights
Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public

Mistler: That's exactly right, Nora. The definite one is actually a people's veto campaign. It's one that could overturn a law the Legislature passed last year that would eliminate most exemptions from a law requiring kids to get vaccinated before they can attend school. Prior to last year's law, parents could obtain exemptions for medical conditions or because of religious or philosophical objections. The new law eliminates the religious and philosophical objections, but keeps the medical exemptions. And it's been controversial from the get-go and, ultimately, prompted opponents to organize and force what's called a people's veto. That means voters will decide whether to overturn the law at the ballot box in an election that takes place in March, the same day Democrats will be holding their presidential primary.

The other is a potential referendum that could scuttle CMP's powerline proposal. That referendum isn't certified yet. Opponents of the project are still collecting signatures and trying to get on the ballot. And if they're successful, that referendum will be held in November, along with all the other candidate contests you previously mentioned.

Flaherty: So one people's veto on vaccines and one prospective referendum on CMP's powerline proposal. Isn't it a little early to focus on a campaign that may never happen?

Mistler: Normally, yes. But the transmission project is so high-profile and so controversial that all the players are assuming that it's a certainty. And they're spending like it, too.

Flaherty: I know. I've seen a lot of digital and television advertising by a group called Clean Energy Matters advocating for the project. I'm assuming that's reflected in the reports?

Mistler: It sure is. So the group Clean Energy Matters is basically the ballot question committee representing CMP, but using a different name, which I don't think is an accident. As you know, Nora, CMP's brand has taken a hit in recent years because of reliability problems, billing issues and requests for rate increases. So that's why the ballot campaign often doesn't mention CMP in its advertising. And that advertising on this project has been extensive, arguably relentless.

In this May 2019 photo, a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of CMP's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman, Maine.
Credit Robert F. Bukaty / AP File

The ballot committee raised $2.3 million over the last three months of 2019. And it's spent nearly all of it, to the tune of nearly $24,000 a day between October and December. It's hired professional campaign staff and spending to place that advertising you keep seeing on television, newspapers and the internet.

And, as we previously reported, Clean Energy Matters has spent a ton on polling — polling that's informing the messaging the campaign is using in its advertising blitz.

Flaherty: I noticed that when some of those pro-corridor ads first came out, they seem to acknowledge that the project was unpopular.

Mistler: Exactly. We don't have access to the campaign's polling, but it's pretty safe to assume that they have a big hole to dig out of if they're going to convince Mainers to support the project at the ballot box. And that's why the advertising blitz is coming so early. And it's also why the pro-corridor group has recently targeted opponents of the project — opponents like the National Resources Council of Maine, which has been a big critic of the corridor in the Legislature and ginning up opposition with its extensive membership.

Now, NRCM is a social welfare non-profit, so it's tax-exempt status limits how much it can get involved in the campaign, but that's not stopping corridor supporters from going after them.

Flaherty: But there are groups against the project, right?

Mistler: There certainly are. Perhaps the most familiar group is No CMP Corridor, which bills itself as a grassroots opposition campaign. That group is leading the signature-gathering effort to get the project on the ballot in November. The latest finance reports show about $19,000 in cash contributions and roughly $50,000 from a separate group called Stop the Corridor. Stop the Corridor is a bit of a mystery because it's refused to disclose its donors —  and legally it doesn't have to — although corridor supporters have no problem insinuating that Stop the Corridor is basically funded by fossil fuel power generators who see the corridor project as a threat to their business.

Flaherty: Wait, so are fossil fuel power generators involved in this campaign?

Steve: There are, although some are more overt about it than others. A political action committee called Mainers for Local Power is funded by two Texas-based companies, Calpine and Vistra. Calpine owns a natural gas electricity generation plant in Westbrook, and Vistra owns one in Veazie. That PAC raised about $100,000 dollars and spent more than half of it in the signature-gathering campaign to get the referendum on the November ballot.

And I'd be remiss to mention another player in all this: Hydro-Quebec. That's a Canadian power company that would supply the power for the transmission project. They also have a ballot committee and have spent over $200,000 on campaign staff and consultants. And as I reported earlier this week, that committee is under the microscope because it was late disclosing its activity and because its mere involvement in a campaign has raised questions about foreign influence in an election.

Flaherty: Ok, let's circle back quickly to the vaccine campaign, the people's veto that will be held in March on Super Tuesday. How's the spending shaping up there?

Steve: Yeah, it's interesting that the most imminent issue and the one definitely on the ballot in March is so far the least expensive, at least compared to the transmission project.

So the group that wants to overturn Maine's law eliminating religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccinations raised three times as much as the group that supports the law. The group Mainers for Health and Parental Rights reported more than $200,000 in contributions and loans to support overturning the new vaccine law. The group that wants to keep the law, Maine Families for Vaccines PAC, raised just shy of $60,000.

And we'll get another look at all of these campaigns later this month.