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Secretary of State validates ballot measure to replace CMP, Versant with consumer-owned utility

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Secretary of State validates ballot measure to replace CMP, Versant with consumer-owned utility

Dec 01, 2022 | 1:04 pm ET
By Evan Popp
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Secretary of State validates ballot measure to replace CMP, Versant with consumer-owned utility
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Advocates for a consumer-owned utility speak at a press conference outside the State House in 2021 | Photo via Seth Berry’s Facebook page

A referendum campaign to replace Maine’s unpopular investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, with a nonprofit power company was certified by the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday, allowing the measure to appear on the November 2023 ballot. 

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows announced that the ballot campaign had submitted 69,735 valid signatures, exceeding the 63,067 signatures needed to trigger a referendum. The proposal to replace CMP and Versant will now go to the legislature for consideration. Lawmakers can either enact the bill or, in a more likely scenario, send it to Mainers for a vote next November. 

“Thanks to the heroic effort of hundreds of volunteers across the state, Maine voters will now have the chance to choose between our two failing, foreign-owned power companies, CMP and Versant, and one owned by Maine people,” said Andrew Blunt, executive director of Our Power, the group spearheading the ballot initiative. 

As Beacon previously reported, the referendum will ask Mainers if they want to replace CMP and Versant with the Pine Tree Power Company, a consumer-owned utility that would provide power to most municipalities in Maine, except the 97 Maine towns already served by other consumer-owned utilities. The legislature passed a bill in 2021 to put the same question to the voters in November of that year but that measure was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, prompting Our Power to launch the referendum effort instead. 

The idea to replace CMP and Versant — Maine’s two largest utilities — was originally spurred by those utilities’ poor performances. Our Power has pointed out that CMP has the worst customer satisfaction among large and mid-sized utilities in the country and Versant is among the worst rated. In addition, under those utilities, Mainers have endured the most power outages of any state and the second longest period with no power. Despite that, electricity rates in Maine are the sixth highest in the country, and CMP made $40.5 million in profit in the second quarter of 2022.

“With rates through the roof and a hard winter ahead, Mainers are more ready than ever for a local power company that lowers our bills instead of making wealthy corporations richer,” Blunt said Wednesday. 

Along with the argument that the Pine Tree Power Company would lower rates — a point that has held true for the consumer-owned utilities that already serve part or all of 97 towns in Maine — advocates say moving away from CMP and Versant and toward public power would boost reliability for customers by allowing for investment of money into improving and updating the grid rather than a focus on profits.

“After a year of connecting with Maine people and collecting signatures from almost every town in the state, we are proud to offer a brighter future for our state’s electric grid and cheaper power for Maine ratepayers,” John Brautigam, Our Power’s board president, said.

Wil Thieme of Maine Public Power, a project of the Maine Democratic Socialist of America, which supports the ballot measure campaign, also celebrated the successful validation of the signatures and called on CMP and Versant to respect that verification.

“Now that the confirmation of signatures is complete, our profiteering utility opponents have just over a week to sue to get signatures thrown out, a move that would undermine the democratic process and silence the voices of Maine voters,” he said. “Fortunately, thanks to the significant margin of excess signatures collected by our wonderful volunteers, the chances of them invalidating enough signatures to boot us from the ballot are slim.”   

Even if the utilities don’t fight the signature verification, the Our Power campaign will certainly face stiff opposition from CMP — whose leading owners are the governments of Norway and Qatar — and Versant, which is owned by Calgary, Canada. For example, in 2022 alone, Maine Affordable Energy — a group funded by CMP parent company Avangrid that is opposing the consumer-owned utility referendum spent over $7 million without a referendum even on the ballot. 

And in an additional effort to target the Our Power campaign, No Blank Checks, a group also funded by Avangrid, is pushing for their own referendum in November 2023 that would bar “a quasi-independent state entity, reporting entity, municipal electric district” and consumer-owned utility or rural electrification cooperative from incurring over $1 billion in debt, unless approved by voters. 

However, that referendum contains a number of carve-outs, exempting from voter approval debts of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, the Finance Authority of Maine, the Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority, the Department of Transportation, the Maine Turnpike Authority, municipalities and counties and the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, making it even more clear that the ballot measure is targeted at the Our Power campaign. 

Leaders of No Blank Checks say they have collected the number of signatures needed to put that referendum on the ballot. However, they have not yet submitted their petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office. 

Photo: Former legislator Seth Berry and members of Our Power speak at a press conference outside the State House in 2021.