Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine. The developer of a $1 billion electric transmission line is suspending construction at the request of Maine’s governor after she certified election results Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in which residents firmly opposed the project. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A referendum campaign backed by the parent company of Central Maine Power is hoping to qualify for next November’s ballot in an effort to counter a second campaign to create a consumer-owned utility in the state.

The group No Blank Checks submitted more than 93,000 petition signatures to the Maine secretary of state’s office this week. That sets up the likely scenario where Maine residents will cast votes on two competing referendum campaigns related to electric utilities next fall.

No Blank Checks wants any consumer-owned utility to have to receive voter approval before taking on more than $1 billion in debt through revenue bonds. The proposal is a direct response to the referendum spearheaded by a group called Our Power Maine that would force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to a new consumer-owned utility known as Pine Tree Power Co.

Willy Ritch with No Blank Checks said he is confident the referendum will qualify for the ballot.

“If both of those [referendums] pass, it would actually create a third referendum vote in the future in which voters would be asked to approve the debt necessary to seize those utilities,” Ritch said. “That’s sort of a complicated scenario of things that would happen. But at its essence, this a very simple, commonsense proposal. And it says that if a government entity is going to take on debt of over a billion dollars, the voters of the state of Maine should have a say on that.”

The parent company of CMP, Avangrid, has bankrolled the roughly $1 million campaign so far.

The consumer-owned utility push emerged from years of frustration with Maine’s two primary electric utilities — but especially CMP — over prolonged power outages, rising rates and customer service concerns. The proposed utility would be overseen by an elected board of directors but day-to-day operations of the power grid would be contracted out.

“This CMP campaign is about one thing: Protecting utility profits,” Andrew Blunt, executive director of Our Power, said of the opposing campaign. “Mr. Ritch’s foreign funder owns CMP and wants to keep prying half a million dollars a day in profit from working Maine families. That’s why they’re trying to distract Mainers with a make-believe purchase price.”

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.