Consumer-owned power advocates running out of time for 2022 ballot

·5 min read

Jan. 18—The campaign promoting a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine says it plans to make an announcement on Wednesday amid evidence that supporters have been unable to gather enough signatures for a ballot question this November.

Stephanie Clifford, campaign manager for Our Power, the coalition behind the effort, declined Tuesday to comment on growing signs that signature-gathering efforts had fallen short. The group will address the signature-gathering issue and make an announcement about its campaign finances on Wednesday, Clifford said.

"We're not going to comment on that," she told the Portland Press Herald when asked if the ballot initiative will be pushed back to 2023.

But at least three signs point to the likelihood that the group couldn't gather the roughly 63,000 required signatures for 2022.

First, the deadline to submit petitions to municipal clerks for certification is Friday, which is 10 days before the final filing deadline with the Maine Secretary of State.

Monday was Our Power's "internal campaign deadline" for getting back signatures from its canvassers. Clifford sent an email this month urging them to act, with this caveat: "But remember, if we don't hit the 63,000 mark by the end of this month, the signatures remain valid for another year, so we will definitely keep collecting!"

Second, one of the coalition's members, the Democratic Socialists of America, also sent a note to organizers regarding its Maine Public Power project, a parallel effort to gather signatures. That email indicates the group paused its efforts this month and is looking ahead to 2023.

"As we begin the new year, we're putting canvassing on hold until February," the note said. "We all deserve a rejuvenating break for a few weeks, and we're hoping this rest will help to build steam in the coming months — we'll definitely need as much energy and people power as we can get in 2022. CMP will not make this fight easy for us. "

Representatives of Maine Public Power didn't respond to an emailed request for an interview on Tuesday.

Third, two legislators who have been the lead promoters of consumer-owned power declined in a recent Bangor Daily News story to say whether they had collected enough signatures for 2022. Both Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, indicated that they would be OK with 2023.

Neither lawmaker could be reached for comment Tuesday.

COMPETING CAMPAIGNS

Those sentiments are at odds with the sense of urgency that has characterized the consumer-owned power movement.

Advocates have been working since 2019 on efforts to replace Maine's two investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, with a nonprofit, consumer-owned company. With the proposed name Pine Tree Power, the new utility would be run by a board elected by Mainers and managed by a private-sector operator. It would issue debt against future revenues to purchase the assets of CMP and Versant.

Pine Tree Power would be an antidote to the high costs and reliability problems plaguing CMP and Versant, according to supporters. They began collecting signatures last summer after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have teed up a similar referendum question. It was the second time such a bill failed to make it out of the Legislature.

But CMP and Versant are fighting the effort, which they call a scheme to seize the state's electric grid in a government takeover. They warn that the fight will be tied up in court for years, and that ratepayers ultimately would have to pay off more than $13 billion in debt, a figure disputed by supporters as being too high.

Through a political action committee called Maine Affordable Energy, the utilities and their allies in business and organized labor have spent heavily to convince residents that the consumer-owned power plan is an unnecessary and costly idea. Year-end reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission show the group has spent more than $2.9 million in its bid to defeat the proposal. Avangrid Management Co., a subsidiary of CMP parent company Avangrid, is the top donor.

At the same time, Maine Affordable Energy has been gathering signatures for a competing ballot initiative. It would require voter approval before any government entity could assume more than $1 billion in debt.

Mainers are worried about the cost on their electric bills of buying out CMP and Versant, said Willy Ritch, the group's campaign manager. They're also skeptical of the potential for future savings, he added.

"To a lot of people, this seems like an experiment," Ritch said.

The impact of putting off the Pine Tree Power ballot initiative until 2023 is a mixed bag, Ritch said. Turnout is expected to be higher this November for midterm elections, which will feature hotly contested races for governor and members of Congress. That won't be the case in 2023, Ritch noted, favoring engagement by residents who are motivated by the consumer-owned power issue.

An additional year also will give residents more time to learn about the proposal, but whether that benefits opponents or supporters is debatable.

NEXT STEP UNKNOWN

The inability to collect enough signatures this year amounts to a reality check on Our Power's enthusiasm last November, following the 2021 elections.

Voters at that time were weighing in on a ballot question aimed at killing CMP's transmission line project in western Maine, the New England Clean Energy Connect. That question won handily, in part because of a general distrust and dislike of CMP among some residents. Now the case is in court. Consumer-owned utility supporters hoped to tap into that animosity when soliciting signatures outside polling stations. The initial reaction was encouraging.

"Our signature-collecting results exceeded expectations," Clifford, the campaign manager, said in a Nov. 2 news release. "Mainers are excited about this proposal because we know we can do better. It's time to replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility that is locally owned, lower cost, more reliable and looking out for us, not foreign shareholders."

What happens next may depend to some extent on Our Power's announcement Wednesday.

Asked about Maine Affordable Energy's signature-gathering campaign, Ritch declined to share numbers but said it was on track to hit its target by summer. If successful, the group could aim for the 2023 ballot as well.