In this May 28, 2019, file photo, a sign in protest of Central Maine Power's controversial hydropower transmission corridor is stretched across a business sign in The Forks. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A referendum bid aimed at killing Central Maine Power’s controversial $1 billion corridor was virtually killed on Thursday by the state’s high court, which deemed the effort unconstitutional in a decision that will have yearslong political implications.

The decision all but ends the most expensive campaign over a Maine referendum ever. It may forever limit the power of Mainers to legislate at the ballot box. Previous initiatives have been subject to constitutional challenges, but proponents were allowed to pass them and later lobby for adjustments in the Legislature.

On Thursday, five justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court agreed with CMP parent Avangrid that the question was unconstitutional, ordering a lower court to issue a judgment to that effect ordering Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to remove the question from the ballot. Opponents can appeal the ruling on other grounds, but the path is narrow.

Jon Breed, the executive director of Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-funded political committee that has spent at least $16.7 million to oppose the referendum, called the decision “a major victory for Maine.”

Corridor opponents ranged from resigned to defiant. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a CMP critic who co-chairs the Legislature’s energy panel, pivoted to his consumer-owned utility proposal in a statement, saying, “We may not be able to stop this corridor, but we can stop future projects that are not in the best interests of consumers.”

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, who leads a group opposed to the corridor, said the ruling effectively disenfranchised Mainers and that his side could still harness opposition to the project and lobby lawmakers or start another signature-gathering effort.

“We’re not giving up,” he said. “This is just the beginning.” 

CMP has held off on the construction process, such as in making some hires, while the ballot question has been litigated, said Thorn Dickinson, president of the New England Clean Energy Connect, the project’s formal name. Those processes can go forward now, he said. 

But he said CMP will still focus heavily on talking up what it says are the merits of the project — such as lower energy prices, cleaner energy and job creation — despite the ruling. Both the corridor project and CMP have been unpopular in the months the campaign has been waged.  

“Having a major challenge like this deemed unconstitutional allows us to focus on the project in ways that gets us more involved with communities,” he said.

Avangrid filed the lawsuit in May against Dunlap seeking to stop his office from putting the question to kill the corridor proposal on the November ballot, arguing that it violates a separation of powers provision in the Maine Constitution.

A lower-court judge ruled against the utility in June, agreeing with Dunlap’s assertion that while the referendum may be unconstitutional, it was not necessary to determine that ahead of an election in which the question may pass or not. A state attorney, however, told the court Dunlap would remove the question if it told him to do so.

Justices noted that the court had never prejudged the constitutionality of a question. But they said the CMP referendum question differed from others finessed in the legislative process because it concerned whether the question — and not the underlying issue — was valid at all.

The court also ruled that while the Legislature — and voters by extension — could rein in or expand the authority of utility regulators, they cannot pass a law telling the executive branch to overturn one of their past decisions.

“Plainly, a proposal that is outside the scope of the people’s right to initiate legislation cannot, as a constitutional matter, proceed to the electorate as a direct initiative,” the judges wrote.