In this file photo from 2021, former Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, speaks at a press conference about a consumer-owned utility that would be independent and have a voter-elected board. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

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“Moves, and countermoves.”

Hearing those words spoken by Donald Sutherland, as the charming, villainous President Snow of Panem in the “Hunger Games” movies, evokes the image of two chess grandmasters playing with pawns.  

It also aptly describes the ongoing fight between “Our Power” and the “Maine Affordable Energy Coalition.” The former seeks to have an elected quasi-government board take over the assets and responsibilities of Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant. The latter wants to bind “Our Power” by requiring voter approval for any proposals borrowing in excess of $1 billion secured by revenues.

The groups aligning on either side have some strange bedfellows. “Our Power” lists a multitude of Maine’s professional left amongst their supporters, such as the Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine Democratic Socialists, and the group “Swing Hard, Turn Left.”  The latter is led by former Portland Mayor and current Bangor Daily News columnist Ethan Strimling. However, former Maine GOP Chairman and current state Senator Rick Bennett is also a supporter of the effort.

The Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, also known as “No Blank Checks,” is primarily backed by CMP parent company Avangrid. Various business groups are unsurprisingly on the team, as is the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. But a wide variety of unions are also standing with them, including a group led by Strimling’s former mayoral “Special Assistant.”

Moves, and countermoves.

The politicking is only going to get worse from here on out, both in Augusta and on our airwaves. These are literally multi-billion dollar questions that will, most likely, find their way to the ballot. The legislature may counter the countermoves by offering their own competing measure, complicating things further.

I’m sure every voter in Maine will dive deep into the complex issues and develop a very deep understanding of the nuances of each proposal before casting their simple up-or-down vote on all these questions. Right?

Of course not.

These two citizen initiated bills — moves, and countermoves — are shining examples of everything wrong with our referendum process.

These two bills will likely receive legislative public hearings. However, these hearings will essentially be all for show. The Legislature – the 186 individuals we have sent to Augusta to do a job – is powerless to amend the language written by the advocates.

They simply have to vote “yes” or “no” on the measure before them. They cannot offer solutions to address any identified weakness in the bills as written. They either make it into law as-is, or the question automatically goes out to the ballot.  

Moves, and countermoves.

“Our Power” would create an entirely new quasi-government agency. It would be headed by a 13-member board, seven of whom would be popularly elected – politicians – and eligible to seek taxpayer funding for their campaigns. Are more taxpayer-funded campaigns really the best use of dollars right now?

Employees would explicitly have the right to strike and the government entity would not be able to hire new long-term employees during a strike. Can you imagine if there was a strike ongoing last week during the windstorm? And no new crews could join the company?

I am sure some people see no issues with either of those parts of the legislation. Others could have concerns and might want to tweak those provisions. But guess what? None of that is subject to amendment under the Maine Constitution.  

The “Maine Affordable Energy” proposal is simpler, but still a headfake. It says that more than a billion dollars of borrowing against revenues requires voter approval. The corollary is that borrowing less than a billion does not need approval. Maybe a legislator – someone being paid to do a job – wants to amend the bill to require all revenue bonding be put to a vote.  

They can’t. No amendments allowed. They either vote “yes” or “no” on the draft written by lobbyists.  

The chess game being played on the political question of power distribution is a series of moves, and countermoves.  

But the Maine Constitution should not be subject to gamesmanship. It is time to reform the referendum process.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.