Former state Sen. Tom Saviello speaks at a rally after opponents of the Central Maine Power corridor submitted more than 75,000 signatures to election officials outside the State House on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A referendum aimed at killing Central Maine Power’s proposed hydropower corridor project may be unconstitutional, but that has done little to deter opponents and supporters in one of the most high-profile Maine campaigns of 2020.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has said while the question may be unconstitutional, it should go forward even if it is nonbinding as a mark of voter approval. A judge who ruled in June that it can remain on the ballot said the constitutional question can be taken up if it passes, though Maine’s high court is expected to rule on an appeal from CMP’s parent before the election.

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If anything, the questions may have heightened opponents’ referendum bid, which may end up as a cudgel to wield against proponents in the Legislature, which could play a pivotal role in what happens after the vote. CMP’s beleaguered reputation has supporters up against a wall politically and hoping courts will sink the question before the vote.

“It has no impact at all,” said Wilton Selectman Tom Saviello, a former state senator and one of the leaders of Say No to NECEC, an opposing group, on the constitutionality of the question. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s full bore ahead.”

Millions have been spent by opponents and supporters in recent weeks. Mainers of Local Power, a political committee backed by two companies with natural gas plants in Maine, dropped $6 million in advertisements last week to answer the $16.7 million in combined spending from CMP and Hydro-Quebec, which would provide the power to the regional grid.

Chris Glynn, a spokesperson for the CMP-linked political committee Clean Energy Matters, said Dunlap’s opinion has not changed their approach of touting the jobs, lower energy costs and environmental effects supporters say will come with the project. But he did say the referendum could affect private companies’ trust in government if citizens overrule the approval of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

“No legislative body has authority to mandate that the PUC Commissioners reverse their factual findings and conclusions of law when that order has become final and has been upheld by a Court,” he said.

Avangrid, the U.S. subsidiary of CMP’s Spanish parent, Iberdrola, has pursued the efforts to strike the question as unconstitutional to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which will take up the issue in early August. But if precedent holds, the state’s high court is unlikely to overturn a lower-court ruling or get involved in political disputes prior to an election.

There is, however, precedent for the Legislature adjusting citizen initiatives that could not pass constitutional muster. Maine’s ranked-choice voting law underwent legal challenges and legislative tinkering before it took effect during the 2018 election.

Though Avangrid argues the Legislature has limited binding power over the utilities commission, lawmakers have flexed their sway over the commission before. It approved a bill directing the PUC to approve a long-term contract for offshore energy last year between the University of Maine and CMP after the initial project was vetoed by former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who supports the project alongside Gov. Janet Mills, his Democratic successor.

Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth — who sponsored a bill to prevent foreign entities like Hydro-Quebec from spending money in ballot campaigns — said he expects the same will happen if the referendum passes, saying he thinks “there are a good number of my legislative colleagues who would want to make sure the law is fully implemented.”

Saviello said lawmakers who are supportive of the project may be hesitant to ignore a referendum, even if it is only advisory.

“If their whole district votes against it, you don’t want to go back to your district if you don’t follow that,” he said.