A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Central Maine Power Co. tagged in its famous spokesperson while starting a Wednesday advertising blitz against a quasi-public takeover of the state’s major utilities.
The ad from worker Jim Wright of Cornville, the worker who rode the utility’s legendary “no line is safe to touch, evah” ads to statewide fame in the 1990s, highlights CMP’s advantage over opponents in this 2023 referendum. It distinguishes this campaign from the utility’s last one.
What’s at stake: The question would buy out the infrastructure of Maine’s two major utilities, Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power, and put the system under the control of an elected board. Proponents argue that lower public borrowing rates would allow for cheaper costs over time and that the new entity would be more responsive, while the utilities say it would put taxpayers at risk.
Big money already: The campaign for a quasi-public takeover is being led by Our Power, a political group run by former House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who championed a similar measure in the Legislature that was vetoed in 2021 by Gov. Janet Mills. The utilities are solely funding the campaign against the initiative, injecting $12.9 million into their political committees by 2022’s end.
They are now flexing that muscle. Wright makes a simple case against the question, citing the utilities’ $13.5 billion estimate on borrowing that would be required.
“It could mean higher taxes or cuts to critical services we use every day,” he said.
But wait: That case is speculative, since the new agency would not be directly tied to the state budget and the tax code. The cost of the utility buyout would likely be subject to a long bout of legal wrangling. A study conducted for the state in 2020 found that rates could go up initially under a consumer-owned utility like the one being proposed here, but that they were likely to go down over time.
What it shows: The round of ads highlight a political reality that distinguishes this campaign from the last one that CMP waged and lost over its $1 billion corridor project in 2021. While the utility and its allies swamped opponents by spending $64 million on their campaign, anti-corridor forces found $27 million in funding largely from power companies fighting CMP for regional market share.It is not clear where Our Power is going to draw comparable funding from, since it only raised $550,000 through year’s end for its campaign. That has been enough to get the question on the ballot, but it is not enough to start an advertising blitz. CMP is already well on its way to dominating the airwaves.