AUGUSTA, Maine — The high-profile proposal to ask Maine voters to approve a takeover of the state’s dominant electric utilities is in danger of failing in a key vote this week with one focal senator saying he has reservations as four city mayors rally against the cause.
The bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, was on track to pass the Legislature earlier this month on the way to an assured veto from Gov. Janet Mills. But the defection of two prior supporters derailed that moral victory for consumer-owned utility supporters when it failed to clear the Maine Senate by a single vote.
It sets up a nail-biting Wednesday vote on the measure. Supporters are scrambling to insert changes to clear up concerns from local officials about losing out on considerable local tax revenue paid now by Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power, even though the bill seeks to shield that revenue already. The mayors advancing those concerns are not assuaged.
Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, one of the two state senators who flipped two weeks ago, is still wavering. After that late-night vote, he committed to supporting the bill if it was made clear that the new utility would be subject to property taxes. But on Monday, he said he was undecided, citing “real reservations” about the costs of fighting utilities in court and upkeep of the grid.
“My instinct is to defer to the voters and trust them to make a decision,” he said. “… But if you ask someone if they support a consumer-owned utility, along with Mother Earth and apple pie, it’s hard to say no.”
His hesitation comes after a quartet of mayors from Lewiston, Auburn, Westbrook and Augusta slammed the bill in a Lewiston Sun Journal op-ed this weekend, which argued the Legislature could reduce the amount of taxes paid to municipalities any time.
In 2019, those four cities got a combined $10.9 million in property taxes from CMP. As it is written, Berry’s bill says the new Pine Tree Power Co., which would be run by an elected board, must provide payments in lieu of taxes to cities and towns that are equal to those paid by the utilities. But the mayors’ concerns run deeper than taxes.
The op-ed included utilities’ characterization of the idea as a “government takeover” of the state’s electric infrastructure. Outgoing Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said while ensuring taxes remain steady to cities would make him more comfortable, taking CMP out of the picture would be unproductive.
“I know they have had some stumbling blocks, but to cut at the throat of the business when they are trying to address that, I struggle with that,” he said.
Cayer said the mayors are seeking conversations with Berry and Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, another top proponent of the consumer-owned utility measure, and the utilities to have discussions about shared frustrations and what can be done to regulate utilities more effectively.
But those talks are unlikely to happen before Wednesday’s vote. Berry has submitted an amendment that would increase any payments to municipalities to 120 percent of their property tax value. He said he plans to sit down with Mills’ office Tuesday after trying to solicit her opinion for months.
“It’s clear CMP and Iberdrola are working hard to confuse people on the issues of state funding and utility funding,” he said.
Bennett, the co-sponsor of the measure, reacted more strongly to the op-ed, calling it “disingenuous” and saying there was a clear distinction between a government-owned entity that would be funded out of the state budget and this one created by the Legislature.
“Maybe [the mayors] don’t understand what the difference is,” he said.