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Off-year election in Maine to determine fate of investor-owned utilities

Maine voters face a busy ballot on Tuesday in an off-year election dominated by a decision over whether to replace the state’s two much-criticized private electric utilities.

Maine voters face a busy ballot on Tuesday in an off-year election dominated by a decision over whether to replace the state’s two much-criticized private electric utilities.

Voters will decide whether to restore language about honoring obligations to Native American tribes to printed versions of the state constitution. Other referendums include a vote on whether to attempt to curb influence from foreign governments and entities on state elections.

The state’s busy slate of referendums comes a year before Maine will likely once again emerge as a battleground for a congressional seat and a presidential electoral vote in its more conservative 2nd Congressional District.


NEW POWER COMPANY

The proposed takeover of two investor-owned utilities that distribute 97% of electricity in the state is unprecedented.

If approved, the referendum would mark the first time a state with existing private utilities decided to scrap them all at the same time in favor of a nonprofit model. The proposal would dismantle Central Maine Power and Versant Power and create the nonprofit utility Pine Tree Power to govern the grid instead.

MAINE VOTERS TO DECIDE ON FATE OF STATE’S LEADING ELECTRIC COMPANIES

Supporters said there was little to lose because of the utilities’ poor performance. But critics said there’s no guarantee the nonprofit utility would perform any better while the move could spark lawsuits and cost billions — as much as $13.5 billion — to buy out the existing utilities.

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A separate ballot question could also pose a hurdle for Pine Tree Power: If approved, the referendum would require voter approval for borrowing topping $1 billion, potentially crimping access to bonds needed for the buyout.

The vote came amid intense criticism of Central Maine Power over its slow response to storm-related power outages, a botched billing system rollout and perceived roadblocks to connecting renewable power projects to the grid, among other things.

FOREIGN ELECTION INFLUENCE

Mainers will be asked to ban foreign government spending in local and state referendums, closing a loophole in federal election law that a Canadian utility giant exploited to protect a high-profile project in the state.

The Canadian-government-owned Hydro Quebec donated millions in a failed attempt to stop a proposal to halt a cross-border hydropower transmission project in which the utility stood to earn $10 billion.

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Federal election law prevents foreign governments and entities from spending money to influence candidate elections, yet there’s no such ban covering state referendums.

If the referendum is approved, Maine would be the 10th state to ban foreign spending in state initiative elections, said Aaron McKean, legal counsel for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

CONSTITUTION AND TRIBES

Voters will decide whether to restore long-removed language about Maine’s obligations to Native American tribes to the printed versions of its constitution.

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Maine inherited the treaties from Massachusetts when it became its own state more than 200 years ago. The language still applies, but it was removed from the printed constitution in the 19th century.

Members of Maine’s Native American tribes and others have said the restoration of the language to the printed constitution would honor history and make clear the state’s obligations to Indigenous groups. But Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has opposed the measure, fearing it could lead to lawsuits.

John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Wabanaki Alliance, said restoring the language would increase “the likelihood current and future residents of this state do understand the obligations of the state of Maine to the Wabanaki Nations.”

OTHER INITIATIVES

Maine voters are also giving the final say on a “right to repair” initiative regarding vehicles that would ensure private mechanics can get access to a car’s electronic diagnostic data that’s sent wirelessly to manufactures.

There were several other constitutional amendments. One would remove a requirement that referendum petition gatherers be Maine residents, a provision ruled unconstitutional.

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