Supporters and opponents of CMP's proposed transmission line gather ahead of a 2019 hearing on the issue. Credit: Fred Bever | Maine Public

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There is healthy grass-roots opposition to Central Maine Power’s proposed $1 billion energy corridor from Quebec to Massachusetts through western Maine, but there is trouble afoot in the key coalition fighting the transmission line.

On Tuesday, the town of Wilton voted overwhelmingly to oppose the project at a meeting, joining a group of towns that opposed it before CMP wooed Gov. Janet Mills by floating a benefits package exceeding $250 million over 40 years if the corridor is approved by regulators.

A coalition fighting the corridor rankled proponents last month by rolling out a political-style ad that hit Mills for a “backroom deal” with CMP. After that, two groups in the coalition that still oppose the corridor sent letters to the Democratic governor signaling regret for the ad and at least one group left it.

Groups in the coalition haven’t dropped their opposition to the project, but the ad signaled a change in the structure of their campaign. The group leading the coalition — Stop the Corridor — hasn’t disclosed its funders. It’s led by Riley Ploch, a former aide to Senate Republicans, who used his role mostly to highlight grassroots opposition to the corridor. He didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Between last week and this week, Stop the Corridor removed a list of partners from their website that once included ReEnergy Holdings, which owns biomass plants in Maine, the Maine Renewable Energy Association and environmental groups including the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

It was unclear why until Mills’ office on Wednesday provided Feb. 28 letters from ReEnergy and the Maine Renewable Energy Association expressing regret for the ad while reiterating that they still oppose the corridor. ReEnergy said it didn’t pay for the ad and didn’t see it until it aired. The company was “alarmed at its tone and accusations” and said it left the coalition.

David Wilby, the president of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, wrote to Mills saying the group has “taken steps to disassociate” from Stop the Corridor by asking it to remove the association’s name and logo from the website. Wilby told Mills the group would confine its opposition to the process before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine hasn’t left the coalition, according to Dylan Voorhees, the group’s clean energy director, saying he suspected that names were taken down from the site to avoid the “drama of who’s in and who’s out” and keep attention on grassroots opposition.

However, organic opposition to the corridor is still fierce and the discord underlines how groups that oppose it still want to work with Mills on climate issues. The Wilton vote was the first since CMP rolled out the new benefits package and the Franklin County town became at least the eighth Maine municipality to oppose the project officially so far. More may come.

Mills is from neighboring Farmington, which is emerging as an epicenter of opposition to the western Maine corridor. It has become the key issue of her tenure and it isn’t one that’s going away anytime soon. The utilities commission has set March as a target time for a decision on the corridor and lengthy state and federal permitting processes would start if it’s approved.

The governor is prioritizing action on climate change. Last week, Mills added the state to a coalition looking to abide by the Paris accord on emissions reduction. Groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine want high-level involvement on policymaking in that area and Wilby noted in his letter that the association wants to be a partner in it as well.

As a decision on the corridor approaches, proponents would like to keep the focus on mystery backers. Opponents point to their heated grassroots backing and away from astroturfers on their side. It highlights just how messy and complicated the corridor fight has become.

Ethics panel mulls campaign cash rule changes

Rule changes requiring more specificity on financial disclosure forms could be in store for certain state officials, including legislators and the governor. The Ethics Commission will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m. today on two proposed rule amendments. The first: if a candidate for elected office or committee incurs debt and pays it off in the same reporting period, the only amount worth reporting is the amount paid off, not the amount of debt.

The second rule amendment applies to the governor, legislators, constitutional officers and certain staff to be more detailed on their annual statement of income disclosures, specifically with travel expenses and/or gifts received over $300.

Currently, officials do not have to disclose amounts or details of gifts, only the “source of the gift,” which essentially means the name of a donor, an organization, or the name of a conference — having transportation paid for, or a fee paid to attend a conference also constitute as gifts under Maine statutes.

Under the rule changes, the nature and category of gifts would have to be specified, which could mean a short description of total travel cost.

“For years, our office has received this form, and the only information provided in the gifts section is the source of the gift,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission. If a legislator attends a conference, for example, “but there’s no indication of the [gift’s] nature or description, the public is left to wonder. We think the forms could be made to be more helpful,” he said.

These rule changes were proposed by the commission, which has the power to independently enact them. Fine-tuning commission financial disclosure forms is part of a two-year endeavor to build an online database that’s more easily accessible to the public, Wayne said. Find a full agenda for this morning’s meeting here.

Today in A-town

Today’s docket of legislative committee hearings includes talk of changing the funding formula for casino slot machine revenue, widening the mechanism for recalling an elected official, adjusting worker compensation rules, and decriminalizing prostitution.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will also vet a number of consequential bills today:

LD 788, from Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, would equip law enforcement agencies with “handheld narcotics analyzers,” allowing them to test a recovered substance on site to determine whether its a narcotic, rather than wait for lab results.

LD 326, from Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, would decriminalize the act of engaging in prostitution, and LD 548, from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would prevent anyone under the age of 18 who engages in prostitution from being criminally charged.

LD 636, from Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, would require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, and LD 396, from Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, would increase the time law enforcement must store a sexual assault examination kit, also referred to as a rape kit. Tune in here.

Additionally, Mills’ two-year, $8 billion budget will continue winding its way through the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, beginning at 10 a.m. Listen here.

Reading list

— A Maine legislator wants the state’s top homicide prosecutor to be punished. Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, on Monday asked Attorney General Aaron Frey to sanction Lisa Marchese, who was named chief of the criminal division in 2014 by Mills when she was attorney general, for an incorrect statement about a high-profile murder case she made to a legislative panel in 2017. Evangelos accused Marchese of misleading the Judiciary Committee in 2017 about the state’s position on whether convicted murderer Anthony Sanborn should be released from prison. The effect of Marchese’s statement to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is unclear: It came on the same day Sanborn had been released on bail and just before the panel voted unanimously to kill a bill Mills’ office opposed that would have required an evidentiary hearing for people who say they are innocent of a crime of which they were convicted. Evangelos, who as not in the Legislature in 2017, has proposed a similar measure this year.

— Maine’s Republican U.S. senator will cast a rare vote against a judicial nominee. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday that she would vote against the nomination of Chad Readler to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals because of his past opposition to elements of the Affordable Care Act that she supports. Collins has voted to confirm every other judge nominated by Trump since he took office in 2017 and has supported more than 90 percent of judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents during her more than two decades in the Senate. As of early Tuesday evening, Collins was the only Republican to say she would vote against Readler. It would take three other Republicans to join her, and all Senate Democrats and independents to prevent his confirmation.

— The governor and legislators seem to agree that teachers deserve a raise, but there’s less accord on who will pay for it. Maine Public reports that the Legislature’s education committee is considering several measures to increase teacher pay after Mills said in her inaugural address that she wants to raise the minimum salary to $40,000. There was no opposition to the concept of paying teachers more during a public hearing on Monday, but Republican Sen. Matt Pouliot of Augusta and representatives of school administrators raised questions about a sustained funding source and whether a lower minimum salary would add costs up the pay ladder.

— More students at a Maine state university have come forward with accusations that they were sexually assaulted on campus. A total of four former University of Maine at Farmington students, who did not always know one another’s stories, told the BDN that the same man — whom the school cleared in 2018 of raping a current student — physically took advantage of them both before and after he allegedly raped another student in 2017. A fifth woman described how he continued to ask her for sex after she said no. A sixth woman said she witnessed him harass her friend. The new information has emerged since a January report that detailed what two women described as the administration’s poor handling of allegations that they were sexually assaulted. Administrators said they are taking “immediate steps” to support the former students who have made new allegations

Pain and the ash

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, when Christians — especially Catholics — embark on 40 days of repentance to prepare for Easter.

As a very young Catholic boy, I wanted in on the Ash Wednesday action. I thought it was cool when my mother came home from church with that smudge on her forehead. Every other day that we went to Mass, we were sternly admonished not to get dirty. On this one day, it was part of the service.

But when I hit middle school, things changed dramatically. The forehead ashes took on a totally different meaning, as explained to me by a seventh-grade alpha dog. He was a Catholic, but he worshipped far more fervently at the altar of meanness. Ash Wednesday made his life so much easier.

I have to paraphrase, but his take was basically: This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Those ashy foreheads make it so much easier to pick out who to torment. I’ll give up licorice for Lent — I hate it anyway — just as soon as I make those kids with the spots on their heads cry.

Every Wednesday after school, our parish would bus us to a Catholic high school in Worcester for catechism classes. If we did not show up there with smudgy foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we were in for another round of humiliation.

Perhaps you can see why mixing adolescent interpretations of the catechism, middle school pecking order and the dynamics in play when big Irish Catholic families interact with big Italian Catholic families in a town run by Lutherans yielded what can best be described as my complicated relationship with Lent, Easter and religion in general.

As I gained perspective with age and distance, I came to see that a process of Lenten repentance is closely linked to forgiveness and atonement, which when applied compassionately and with a sense of justice, benefit us all. A Jewish friend described Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, as a time to “clean out your spiritual closet.” I think I’ll go with that. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Programming note

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Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...