Consumer-owned utility advocates want to nix takeover unless it saves Mainers money

Backers of a quasi-state takeover of Maine’s two biggest utilities were in front of lawmakers Thursday making what seemed like a counterintuitive case.

The group wants to put a hurdle in front of their 2023 referendum effort, ensuring the takeover only happens if rates are significantly reduced. Utilities are calling it an attempted political bailout, and it got a skeptical response from members of the Legislature’s energy committee on Wednesday.

The details: Our Power, the group advocating for a consumer-owned utility that would borrow billions to buy out the infrastructure of Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power and put it under the control of an elected board, is behind the new bill from Rep. Valli Geiger, D-Rockland.

It would bar utility regulators from turning the electric system over to the new entity unless it was “reasonably likely” rates would immediately go down by 10 percent or more.

“If the outcome in November is a yes, wouldn’t you rather have some certainty that deal would not go forward unless there is immediate and net savings?” former Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who works with Our Power and has long championed the utility takeover, asked a committee member.

How it landed: Republicans on the panel have been opposed to the effort all along, while Democrats have been generally supportive but still split. This led to a coalition that passed a similar consumer-owned utility proposal through the Legislature in 2021.

But it could not get past the veto pen of Gov. Janet Mills, which sent Berry and his allies to put the question on the 2023 ballot. Lawmakers quizzed Berry aggressively on the new proposal.

Rep. Gerry Runte, D-York, wondered why proponents want his committee to legislate a “hypothetical,” given that the question has not passed yet. When Berry accused the utilities of misleading Mainers on his idea, Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, asked him repeatedly to say who, exactly, is doing the lying and to prove it.

The two big utilities then had their turn to oppose the measure, telling lawmakers that their opinions were that such a change to the referendum would require a competing measure on the 2023 ballot that would be voted on alongside the utility takeover bid already locked in for that election. But they also said the idea was an attempt to provide a campaign talking point.

The outlook: We are already deep into the campaign between Our Power and the utilities that have spent $12.9 million on their political activities dating back to last year.

This bill is an extension of that and could be read either as a sign of security from Berry in his proposal. Those more cynical about his point of view could see it as an attempt from that side to head off a political issue.

The response on Wednesday seemed to signify getting it through the Legislature may be a difficult sell, especially given the historic propensity to simply send approved questions to the ballot without changes. Utilities may also fight this on multiple fronts, including the courts.