Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine – The Maine Senate advanced a bill on Tuesday that would level penalties on Maine’s major utilities if they fail to meet new service standards.

The bill, an amended version of a proposal put forward by Gov. Janet Mills earlier this year, sought to reach a compromise between critics of Central Maine Power Co. who had pushed a consumer-owned utility and the company’s allies, who have argued that certain regulations could force the utility to further raise rates.

Neither CMP nor its opponents were on board with the final version of the bill, but it still passed the Senate in a 20-14 vote Tuesday afternoon that fell mostly along partisan lines. It still faces a vote in the House.

The bill requires the Maine Public Utilities Commission to establish standards for reliability and customer service and impose financial penalties if utilities fail to meet those standards. It also requires the commission to adopt plans for Maine’s grid aimed at improving reliability and enabling the state to meet its greenhouse gas-reduction goals in a cost-effective manner.

CMP and Versant Power opposed the legislation in testimony earlier this year, saying penalties were not necessary as their service has recently improved. Environmental groups largely backed it. The state’s energy panel split three ways. This amended version of Mills’ bill got slightly more support than a competing proposal from consumer-owned utility backers that could vie for votes in the House and a separate Republican alternative.

In floor debate before the vote on the bill Tuesday, Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, who was an initial co-sponsor on Mills’ bill, raised concerns about the grid plan, arguing it could increase costs for ratepayers rather than the utilities.

“We have now made it prudent for them to spend whatever they need to spend to avoid any sort of penalties going forward,” Stewart said. “That is going to have a substantial impact on your constituents’ electricity bills.”

But Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, argued the bill would bring greater accountability to Maine’s utilities, noting it was opposed by the “unholy alliance” of the utilities and groups such as Our Power, which has led the push for a consumer-owned utility.

“That’s why I know this is a good bill,” he said. “That’s why I know it will bring accountability now, and I urge you to support it.”