Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — After Maine’s public advocate warned that it could “kill the project,” a legislative panel endorsed a bill on Wednesday that would mandate local approval of Central Maine Power’s proposed corridor despite a deep split on the issue that crossed party lines.

The debate over the proposal from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee and a key critic of Maine utilities, showed an intra-party split among Democrats and may force a showdown between the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills.

The Democratic governor has emerged as the most high-profile backer of Central Maine Power’s $1 billion project to deliver Quebec hydropower to the regional grid, which won a key approval from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in April and is now in permitting processes with other state agencies that could finish by the fall.

The bill backed by the committee Wednesday would mandate that two-thirds of municipalities bisected by the corridor — and other elective corridors like it — approve it by referendum or a vote from municipal officials. It would also issue a moratorium on such projects until 2019’s end. Farmington and more than 10 other towns have opposed the project.

During a testy exchange on Wednesday, Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who helped negotiate a $260 million benefit package with the utility that cinched Mills’ support for the project, told lawmakers that Berry’s bill would “probably kill the project and will set a very bad example” to businesses looking to operate in Maine by hindering a proposal in progress.

“If you get a set of laws and you can comply with those sets of laws, you shouldn’t be moving the goalposts at the end,” said Hobbins, a former Democratic lawmaker.

Berry retorted that he thought utilities were shielded by the state from local control and that the bill would make future corridor projects fairer. Rep. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth, one of the seven Democrats to back the bill, said she didn’t see it as a “huge precedent” for businesses.

“I feel it is my job to listen to the public, weigh their concerns and see if they have a valid point and in this case, I believe that they do,” Grohoski said.

The committee’s three Republicans and two other Democrats — Reps. Chris Caiazzo of Scarborough and Deane Rykerson of Kittery — voted to oppose the bill. Mills has taken a dim view of this bill and another from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, that would mandate an emissions study of the project and passed the Maine Senate easily last week.

In testimony, Avangrid, a parent company of Central Maine Power, said Berry’s original bill would “make it impossible to develop transmission line projects in Maine.” On Wednesday, Thorn Dickinson, Avangrid’s vice president of business development, said in a statement that the company would have to review changes before commenting on the new version.

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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...