In this May 28, 2019, photo a homemade sign is posted on a telephone pole in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor in Jackman. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Central Maine Power poured $2.3 million during the final quarter of 2019 into a political action committee fighting a potential referendum that would decide whether the utility can build a 145-mile transmission line to take hydropower to the regional grid from Quebec.

Clean Energy Matters, the PAC supporting the transmission line, spent more than $1.7 million on television ads during the final three months of 2019. Central Maine Power was its only donor during that period. The PAC also spent $98,000 on polling, $46,000 on opposition research and paid its executive director $53,000 over just three months.

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Meanwhile, Hydro-Quebec, the state-owned utility that would supply the hydropower, formed its own PAC that is already facing a potential fine from the Maine Ethics Commission for spending on political activity last fall before it formally registered as a political committee.

The group didn’t report any fundraising during the last three months, but said on its latest campaign finance report that it is $228,495 in debt. Most of that debt is held by Lg2, the Montreal-based private advertising agency used by Hydro-Quebec. Foreign money is not barred from being used to influence Maine elections.

The $1 billion transmission corridor, known formally as the New England Clean Energy Connect, would bring hydropower from Canada through western Maine to fulfill a massive clean-power request from Massachusetts. Supporters of the corridor argue that it would help the region meet clean-energy goals.

Opponents have questioned whether Maine stands to benefit from a power line, citing concerns about the environmental impacts on the Maine woods. A poll from the Natural Resources Council of Maine last March found that 65 percent of Mainers opposed the project and more than 20 towns have either opposed the corridor outright or rescinded earlier support.

Last fall, the group No CMP Corridor began collecting signatures and raising money for a referendum that would force the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse an initial order allowing the transmission line to proceed. It is the official campaign arm for corridor opponents and is linked to Say NO to NECEC, a nonprofit that has whipped opposition to the line.

No CMP Corridor raised more than $18,000 during the fourth quarter of 2019, bringing its total fundraising to more than $26,000. It also received nearly $50,000 in in-kind contributions from Stop the Corridor, a nonprofit that has been running TV ads opposing the corridor.

Stop the Corridor has not filed as a political committee or disclosed its funders, though it may have to eventually because of a state law that makes entities register as political committees if they raise or spend more than $1,500 in a calendar year to influence a political campaign and that is its major purpose.

Signatures for the referendum must be turned into the Maine secretary of state’s office by Feb. 3. If enough signatures are collected, the referendum would be on the ballot in November.

Other PACs are also opposing the referendum, though none of them have raised as much as Clean Energy Matters. The CMP PAC, which predates the corridor issue, raised $2,661 during the last quarter of 2019.