Janet Mills vetoes bill aiming to replace CMP, Versant Power with consumer-owned utility

Jul. 13—AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday vetoed a proposal to send a takeover of Maine's two dominant electric utilities to voters, saying Maine should explore current powers to penalize utilities while likely prompting supporters to launch their own referendum bid.

The bill would have asked voters to create the Pine Tree Power Co., a nonprofit run by an elected board that would float a bond to buy out the infrastructure of Central Maine Power and Versant Power. Yearslong frustration with CMP's service has fueled support for the concept and backlash against its hydropower corridor through western Maine.

The idea has always faced a challenge in Mills. The Democratic governor has been supportive of the corridor and urged lawmakers not to support the utility takeover bill. She has raised questions how it would replace utility revenue to communities and the required expertise of board members that would be elected to govern a consumer-owned utility.

The governor's veto effectively kills the bill as supporters lack the votes to override it, but debate will continue. Advocates have vowed for months to gather signatures to bring a question to voters under Maine's citizen initiative process, which would tack on another year of political strife for CMP as it already faces a vote in November on a question aimed at its $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine.

Mills criticized the utility takeover for "substantial flaws," including what she termed as unresolved questions about whether customers would save money, what kind of structure the organization would take and the potential for drawn-out litigation that may delay infrastructure improvements. She also said the bill advanced too quickly through the Legislature.

"I share the frustration surrounding the service and performance of Maine's current large utilities," she said at a news conference, "but I'm deeply concerned that this bill presents a rosy solution to a complicated problem that, if implemented, would create a lot more problems than it solves."

Mills did not dismiss the idea of a consumer-owned utility entirely, saying the issue needs more studying and that she is concerned with the findings of an audit that pegged some of CMP's challenges to fallout from the 2015 merger that created CMP's parent company under Spain-based Iberdrola.

But Mills also noted that the state can take bigger steps to rein in utilities. Stopping short of endorsing more drastic measures, she said the Maine Public Utilities Commission could require divestment of a utility's assets, something she would "like to look at and beef up in the current statutes." The state could also explore requiring utilities to have a Maine-based board or meet certain ethical business requirements, she said.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, slammed those cited reasons, calling the veto a "wrong choice." He said the bill included provisions to create a business model that should have addressed her timing concerns and dismissed the idea that tighter regulations could fix the utilities' challenges or those climate change presents.

"We can nibble around the edges, but that will not address the immense challenges that rapid decarbonization requires," he said.

Berry said he would be "shocked" if the veto was overridden next week, as it only passed narrowly in the Legislature, far short of the two-thirds majorities necessary to override the governor's veto. Initial passage was stalled after two Maine Senate votes flipped, although one later signed on after a change aimed at ensuring current local tax payments made by utilities would continue.

The referendum effort will likely begin not long after the Legislature meets next Monday as Our Power, an advocacy group formed to support the bill, promised to take the issue "directly to voters" after Mills' veto.