Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project is again the target of another referendum that could scuttle the project, and the issue of foreign influence in the campaign has also surfaced once again.
A new slate of bills in the Maine Legislature could sideline Hydro-Quebec, a major financial beneficiary of the power line that’s already spent an estimated $10 million promoting its purported benefits to Maine residents.
Some legislators say a company whose sole shareholder is the government of Quebec has no business attempting to influence the ballot initiative. But Hydro-Quebec and other project supporters say silencing the company is unfair and potentially unconstitutional.
As the potential source of electricity for the transmission corridor known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, Hydro-Quebec has spared little expense touting a project that represents the largest sales contract in its history, according to one of its recent annual reports.
The government-owned company stands to net more than $12 billion, and last year it spent nearly $7 million opposing a ballot initiative that was ultimately halted by Maine’s law court.
The problem for corridor opponents is that while it’s illegal under state and federal law for foreign companies or governments to spend money to influence the outcome of candidate campaigns, those same laws are largely silent on foreign spending on ballot campaigns.
The loophole was first reported two years ago, prompting state legislators to back a bill that would close it. That proposal died when the pandemic forced the Legislature to adjourn early, but there are three bills reviving the issue.
Corridor proponents say the bill would leave the company defenseless against an anti-corridor campaign partially backed by natural gas companies. It was also argued that there is a legal distinction between foreign influence in ballot campaigns versus those in candidate campaigns and with that distinction makes the bills that would bar companies with a certain percentage of foreign ownership unconstitutional.
Versant Power, the state’s second largest utility, said it too could be affected if any of the foreign-influence bills became law. That’s because Versant is owned by ENMAX, a Canadian company headquartered in Calgary, Alberta.