Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, Monday, April 26, 2021, near Bingham. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to ask Maine voters to buy out the state’s major utilities and put the electric grid in control of an elected board initially cleared the House of Representatives on Tuesday, though it still faces a potential veto from Gov. Janet Mills.

The historic measure from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, will be a test of Central Maine Power’s lobbying might within a State House that has dealt it few blows in recent years as the utility has faced fights over its controversial $1 billion hydropower corridor, customer service issues and customer satisfaction rates lower than any other U.S. utility.

It has long been a top project for Berry, the hard-charging co-chair of the Legislature’s energy panel and a top CMP critic who toured the state in 2019 to sell the idea. A study conducted on the issue for Maine’s utility regulator last year found Mainers may pay higher rates initially under such a proposal, but rates should go down over time once the utility is set up.

The House approved the bill in a 76-64 vote on Tuesday after more than an hour and a half of debate. All but 10 Democrats present voted for the measure. Just three Republicans — Reps. Nathan Carlow of Buxton, Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Jennifer Poirier of Skowhegan — backed it. Berry’s bill faces further action in both chambers but will likely not have the two-thirds votes needed in both chambers to withstand a potential veto from Mills if it reaches her.

“This is a matter of energy independence. This is a matter of sovereignty,” said Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, an energy committee member. “This is a matter of us controlling our own energy future.”

Berry’s bill would make for a massive change that would upend Maine’s utility structure, which for more than a century has regulated rates and standards in exchange for a monopoly on electric delivery in regions of the state.

If voters approve the bill, the new Pine Tree Power Company would have until 2024 to negotiate a transition with CMP and Versant Power, whose infrastructure would cost between $5 billion and $13.5 billion to buy out. It would be financed by borrowing against future revenues. The seven elected board members each would represent five of Maine’s 35 state Senate districts.

Supporters of the measure have said the new structure and the ability to borrow at lower government rates would lead to lower rates. Opponents led by the two major utilities have called the proposal a massive risk for taxpayers, promising protracted legal fights, saying it will chill corporate investment in Maine and risks underinvestment.

“This is an extreme measure,” said Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, who is also a member of the energy panel. “It will be extremely costly, I believe, for all the ratepayers of Maine.”

The vote sets up a tough fight in the State House in a rebuke to CMP. It sets up a potential confrontation with Mills, a Democrat, who has criticized the bill as being flawed and going to voters without significant questions answered.

The political fight, however, is likely to continue: Supporters have said if the bill does not succeed in the State House, they will likely gather signatures to force a referendum next year when the governor is up for reelection.

The bill is the most significant measure aimed at CMP and its allies this session. The Legislature initially approved a bill last week to limit the ability of foreign government-owned companies like Hydro-Quebec, CMP’s corridor partner, from spending on referendums. A question aiming to block the corridor is headed to voters this fall.

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...