Maine Republican Chairman Rick Bennett shown in a 2016 file photo. Credit: Amber Waterman / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett hit Republican leaders after the returning state senator and Central Maine Power Co. critic was passed over for a seat on the legislative panel that makes utility and broadband policy.

The escalation came in a Facebook post late Friday that set observers abuzz after Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, released committee assignments for the new Senate. With his party in the majority, Jackson formally makes those selections, but minority Republican Senate leaders assign one member to most panels under State House rules and norms.

Newly elected Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, was put on the energy and utilities committee. Bennett, who wanted that seat, was put on the environment panel. In his post, the Oxford senator said he was given an assignment “I did not ask for.” He appealed to Jackson to overturn the decision of his leaders in the Senate.

Lawmakers are often unhappy with committee assignments and may grumble behind the scenes, but they typically accept them. The criticism of Republican leaders by Bennett, a former state party chair, is unprecedented and shows he is looking to carve out an unconventional role in Maine politics from his seat.

Bennett is a leading critic of CMP and its $1 billion proposed hydropower corridor, which is facing a referendum threat and lawsuits from opponents. He proposed changes to the legislative process in a recent Bangor Daily News Op-Ed that aim to overturn long-held Augusta precedents to save time and increase the Legislature’s government oversight role.

Bennett said his complaints were no slight to Stewart, but that he wanted a seat on the energy to affect policy around his pet issues of utilities and broadband. He said the Legislature operates in a “top down” fashion and that leaders have too much power to set committee slates.

“I have specific agenda items that my constituents elected me to undertake and I am damn determined to focus on those,” he said. “I’m not going to let party politics and all this sort of secondary stuff interfere with my desire to serve my constituents in the most effective way possible.”

In an interview, Bennett said he was told the decision was made because of his opposition to the corridor. Stewart supports the corridor along with Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican. The two Senate Republican leaders — Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake of Turner and his assistant, Matt Pouliot of Augusta — issued a statement that did not answer a question on that.

Both answered a Bangor Daily News campaign survey by saying they oppose the corridor as proposed now, though Timberlake opposed two bills aiming to kill the project last year while Pouliot backed them. The two leaders said “many hours” were spent trying to strike a fair balance for members. 

“Not every decision that is best for all concerned will please everyone, every time,” they said.

A Jackson spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Saturday question on whether the Senate president would consider Bennett’s request to overturn the assignment.

He was not the only Oxford County lawmaker to complain about his assignment on Friday. Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, said on Saturday that he would unenroll from his party after being removed from the committee overseeing voting, gambling and liquor policy.

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...