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

Advocates of replacing Maine’s privately owned electric utilities with a consumer-owned Pine Tree Power Company are submitting signatures to force a statewide vote, officials said Monday.

If certified, the petitions would put the proposal to oust Central Maine Power and Versant Power on the referendum ballot next year.

Our Power Maine, which led the petition drive, said it was appropriate to submit more than 80,000 signatures on Halloween.

Without drastic change, “CMP and Versant will play every trick in the book, and take all the candy in the bowl,” Andrew Blunt, Our Power’s executive director, said Monday in a statement. The signatures were to be submitted late Monday afternoon, he said.

The secretary of state must certify signatures of 63,067 registered voters for the referendum to appear on the ballot in November 2023.

Opponents countered by announcing they had signatures for their own referendum targeting what they called a seizure of utilities that could increase, not reduce, electric rates. That proposal would require public approval of debts over $1 billion — effectively requiring an extra vote to take on debt to buy the utilities.

Critics say it would cost at least $13.5 billion to buy the utilities — twice their book value in 2030 — and that there would be protracted litigation.

“There is no guarantee that it will improve prices, reliability or customer satisfaction, and there’s a good chance that it will make them worse instead,” said Tina Riley, a former Democratic lawmaker who served on the Legislature’s Energy, Utility, and Technology Committee.

The Maine Legislature last year approved a proposal to buy out CMP and Versant and replace them with a consumer-owned entity.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills vetoed the bill, saying the utilities’ performance was “abysmal” but that the proposal was “deeply flawed.”

The proposals come at a time of frustration with CMP, the state’s largest electric utility, over a botched rollout of a billing system, slow response to storm damage and power outages, and a controversial utility corridor that would serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower. Recent rate increase proposals have only served to make ratepayers even more frustrated.

David Sharp, Associated Press