Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to float a new proposal for a consumer-owned utility that would be independent and have a voter-elected board in Augusta on Monday, April 19, 2021. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of a consumer-owned utility began a long-promised effort on Monday to bring a question directly to Maine voters after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed their landmark bill earlier this summer.

The bill would have asked Maine residents if they would like to create the Pine Tree Power Co., which would borrow against future revenue to buy out the infrastructure of the state’s two dominant utilities. It was one of the most high-profile bills in 2021, passing both chambers of the Legislature, but failing to win the two-thirds support needed to override the governor’s veto.

The group Our Power, which was formed to advocate for the consumer-owned utility, vowed to bring the question directly to voters in April as the legislative push launched. It needs just over 63,000 signatures to make the ballot. Proponents are aiming for the November 2022 ballot.

It represents another attempt to chip away at the state’s largest utilities after years of frustrations related to billing and customer service issues. Mainers already face a utility-related question this fall that aims to stop Central Maine Power Co.’s $1 billion hydropower corridor.

Proponents say it will save customers money and keep the control of Maine’s electricity with consumers. A report conducted for the state said rates could go up initially under such an arrangement, but then could decline in the long term. But critics, including Mills and the utilities, have said benefits are not guaranteed and that the bill was advanced too quickly.

Signature gathering will likely begin in the next few weeks as Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office reviews the language. If proponents are successful, the question will likely be challenged by CMP and Versant Power. Both have threatened protracted lawsuits — potentially over the authority to seize their assets or the value — if such a question passes.