Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — It initially appeared on Wednesday that Gov. Janet Mills had united Central Maine Power Co. critics and lawmakers that have been more friendly to the company with a new proposal to heighten performance standards for electric utilities.

By the end of the day it was greeted with cautious optimism from both factions in a sign that changes will have to be made to lock down wide political support with the Democratic governor looking to get tougher on the utilities without tying the hands of Maine regulators. 

Mills’ proposal, first reported by the Portland Press Herald on Monday before a draft was released Tuesday, would enshrine penalties for poor service and create a new process by which the Maine Public Utilities Commission could force the sale of assets if service is consistently poor. It would apply to CMP and Versant Power, the state’s other dominant utility.

The bill came with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, including utility critics and Republicans that have been wary of major regulatory changes. There is agreement on the need for more accountability, changes to the measure are expected and the relatively modest package may not be enough for those most weary of the state’s largest utilities.

“It’s not the dramatic action that the situation calls for,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a CMP critic who has broken from his party on many utility issues.

Mills has been aligned with CMP on major issues, including the $1 billion hydropower corridor that Mainers voted down in November. She vetoed a bid to replace the two big electric utilities with a consumer-owned utility that proponents are trying to get on the 2023 ballot

But she has also been critical of CMP, which was given a record penalty in 2020 for customer service woes. The idea behind the bill was teased in Mills’ State of the State address that year. In a corridor endorsement before last year’s election, she called herself “no fan” of CMP.

The state should use powers it already has to ensure better service for Mainers, said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, an energy panel member who is co-sponsoring Mills’ bill in what he called a good first step. But he still wants more solid language around what would happen if a company was performing poorly and was being sold as a result of poor service. 

The consumer-owned utility critic was also wary of another piece of Mills’ bill that would force the utilities commission to weigh proposals from the private sector against one from a politically appointed board to operate electric systems if a major utility is forced to sell out.

“The reality is if we’re going to be good stewards of Maine’s economy and partners with the private sector, we need standards that are clear and benchmarks that are clear,” he said.

Mills’ list of sponsors includes utility critics, many of whom were in favor of last year’s consumer-owned utility effort. Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York, who co-chairs the energy panel, said he expects amendments will be made after the bill gets a hearing in three to four weeks. Getting bipartisan support is critical to creating a longstanding framework, he said.

“There’s always going to be people who don’t think the bill is going far enough,” he said.

Among those people is Bennett, who said while he may support the measure, it would not address the problems created by foreign ownership of the utilities. He said it would not stop efforts to take the consumer-owned utility effort to the ballot box.

Mills’ bill effectively enhances the utilities’ commission’s existing power to impose service standards and penalties if a company is not performing well. The regulator can also require companies to divest themselves of assets in certain circumstances. 

The major difference is that the bill will result in more specific direction from lawmakers to the commission to hold standards to hold utilities accountable, said Public Advocate William Harwood, who conceded that it may not not spur more aggressive regulation.

“I believe the PUC listens carefully to the Legislature when there is a strong consensus as to what they are being directed to do,” he said.

Mills’ embrace of the measure is creating new daylight between the governor and her 2022 opponent, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a fellow corridor proponent. His strategist, Brent Littlefield, hit the proposal for “more bureaucracy.” CMP’s parent is also signaling a fight.

“The PUC already has the necessary authority to protect customer interests,” Catherine Hartnett, an Avangrid spokesperson, said.

Correction: Both former Gov. Paul LePage and Gov. Janet Mills were proponents of the Central Maine Power Co. corridor. An earlier version of this story misidentified their positions.