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

AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a quasi-public takeover of Maine’s electric utilities sued the state this week, saying a referendum aimed at countering their effort should be removed from the 2023 ballot.

It escalated the battle between Central Maine Power Co. and Our Power, the political group pushing a new utility that would borrow billions to buy out the infrastructure of CMP and Versant Power. Both sides have qualified their dueling referendum campaigns for the 2023 ballot.

Our Power’s effort would put the electric delivery system under the control of an elected board, while CMP’s parent is funding its own campaign to ask voters to subject the billions in borrowing needed to fund such a utility buyout to yet another public vote.

The argument: On Monday, Bill Dunn, who works with Our Power, sued Secretary of State Shenna Bellows in an Augusta state court, saying the Democrat was wrong to clear a rival referendum for the ballot in January.

Bellows’ office found that the CMP-backed question barely qualified, getting just over 1,100 more signatures from registered Maine voters than it needed. In his lawsuit filed in an Augusta court, Dunn says Bellows should have invalidated 3,200 more signatures.

What they’re saying: “The Secretary made this determination in violation of constitutional and statutory provisions, in excess of her statutory authority, upon an unlawful procedure, unsupported by substantial evidence on the whole record, and in a manner that was arbitrary, capricious and characterized by an abuse of discretion,” Dunn’s lawsuit reads.

“It’s remarkable what lengths the Pine Tree Power campaign will go to in order to keep Mainers from having the right to approve the $13 billion they want to borrow,” said Willy Ritch, the Democratic operative running the referendum campaign for No Blank Checks, a group funded by CMP’s parent.

What’s next: Courts typically consider cases like this on expedited timeframes. In past comparable cases, the issue has been sent back to the secretary of state for a new ruling. A lower-court judge could then get another crack at the case. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is likely to decide in the end.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...