In this June 30, 2021, file photo, Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, speaks outside the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Voters could be presented with two different methods of taking over Maine’s major electric utilities on the November 2022 ballot as proponents kick off a referendum drive while keeping question-wording options open.

A group of utility critics submitted applications on Monday with the goal of getting at least one question to voters by next fall on whether they would like to buy out the infrastructure of Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power to create the consumer-owned Pine Tree Power Co. Proponents must collect more than 63,000 signatures by January to make the ballot.

But the two proposals set very different timelines and processes for putting the electric system under the control of an elected board. Proponents are still exploring whether to pursue one, both or a hybrid option as they embark on the third referendum challenge aimed at CMP in the last two years after rancor over billing and customer service issues and its $1 billion corridor project.

The filing of the two petitions now gives them room to decide how to shape their question and ensures they can begin collecting signatures in the fall with an anti-corridor referendum before the Maine voters.

“We felt it was important to maintain as much optionality as possible,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a top utility critic.

Both petitions set criteria for how the Maine Public Utilities Commission would determine if a utility is unfit to serve and needs to be sold. The eight standards go further than previous legislation and aimed at CMP, touching on customer approval, how foreign ownership affects it, how it charges customers to pay for damage created by extreme weather and reliability. If a company meets four of those negative criteria, the PUC must order its sale within two years.

But they diverge on how to get there. One petition seeks to establish the Pine Tree Power Co. outright, outlining how it would be governed, retain employees, how it would seek to purchase a utility and what kind of funding it could utilize.

The second petition would establish the Pine Tree Power Co. as an entity and only order the existing utilities to sell if they meet the criteria. It would require Gov. Janet Mills’ energy office to look at prior bills attempting to create a consumer-owned utility and consult with stakeholders to submit a bill allowing it to purchase a company found unfit to serve.

The issue of whether to send a question to voters was among the most high-profile issues facing the Legislature this session, with supporters couching it as a way to lower rates and improve reliability. Opponents — including Democratic Mills, who vetoed the bill that would have sent the consumer-owned utility to voters — said those benefits were not guaranteed.

Either option is likely to be challenged in court by the utilities, who have said they are not interested in selling their infrastructure and have threatened protracted lawsuits.

A consumer-owned utility would be bad for the state, and it would be “irresponsible of us to not do everything we can to point that out,” said Scott Mahoney, a senior vice president of Avangrid, CMP’s parent company. He said he did not believe any utility could meet the standards outlined in the petitions.

Mahoney said this nascent petition is aiming to take advantage of customer frustration with the company. The way to defeat it is similar to tackling opposition to the CMP corridor, he said, by improving customer sentiment through better service.

“We’re hoping as we do those things every day, the sentiment will change,” he said.