AUGUSTA, Maine – A split among Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives led the chamber to reject a bill from Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday aimed at enshrining penalties for Maine’s largest utilities if they fail to meet certain service standards.
Mills initially put the legislation forward this year as a possible compromise that could bridge the divide between allies of Central Maine Power Co. and its harshest critics. Its failure renders it unlikely that the Legislature will take major steps to address the unpopular utility in 2022.
On the House floor Tuesday, several lawmakers argued that the Democratic governor’s bill did not go far enough to ensure CMP and Versant Power would be held accountable for the quality and costs of service. Lawmakers voted to table it after rejecting a version that easily passed the Senate earlier in the day.
Environmental groups had largely backed the bill, which would have enabled the Maine Public Utilities Commission to penalize utilities if they did not meet certain standards. The amended version that passed the Senate also would have required the commission to adopt plans for the state’s power grid to improve reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It had received pushback on several fronts, however, with progressives saying the state needed to be more aggressive. Among the skeptics were chief proponents of a plan to buy out Maine’s major utilities and replace them with a consumer-owned entity. A referendum aiming to do that failed to get enough signatures to make the ballot this year.
The Mills-backed bill was opposed by CMP and Versant, who argued in testimony earlier this year that their service quality improved and they did not need to be subject to possible penalties. The legislative committee that deals with energy issues ultimately advanced three different versions on the bill.
The criticism before it was shot down in the House on Tuesday came from all sides. Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, expressed concern that that bill would drive up electricity rates. Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, of the consumer-owned utility faction, characterized it as “merely lipstick” with “no teeth.”
“I will not go home to my constituents and say that I supported this bill and that they can look forward to better than worst-in-the-nation service and high rates because that would be a false promise,” she said.
Proponents of the bill had argued it was a positive step even if not perfect, with Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, arguing lawmakers could “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Environmental groups expressed frustration with the vote late Tuesday. Jeff Marks, Senior Policy Advocate at the Acadia Center, said it was “unacceptable” for lawmakers to leave town without taking action to regulate the utilities sector.
“After years of last-place customer service evaluations, billing snafus, and other calamities, legislators failed to put teeth into utilities’ performance and hold them accountable, not just for reliability and affordability, but for the very future of the electricity grid,” he said.