Jim Wright of Cornville, a Central Maine Power Co. worker and spokesperson, appears in a new TV ad funded by CMP's parent against a quasi-public takeover of Maine's major utilities that began airing on March 1. Credit: Screenshot of video

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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.

When is a government-owned power company a good idea?

One of the ongoing fights in Maine is over the wording of the ballot question proposing to create the “Pine Tree Power Company.”  

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows — former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and elected by Democrats to her present post — wrote a question daring to describe the initiative as establishing a “quasi-governmental” company.  

Supporters sued her. They worried the term “quasi-governmental” would confuse the rubes — I mean, Maine voters — and “trigger a deeply emotional aversion many voters have to the specter of bigger government…”  

That fight went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court this week. But it is also being waged in towns throughout Maine.

Gardiner’s A1 Diner has found itself in the spotlight. Its owner dared appear in a commercial opposing the attempt to supplant Maine’s existing transmission utility companies. He was worried about a government takeover.

The longstanding Maine business got “review bombed” by keyboard warriors accusing the diner of having equally disgusting health practices and political views.

Former State Rep. Seth Berry, one of the leaders of the “Our Power” group pushing the referendum, jumped onto social media as well. He offered the pithy quip that the Pine Tree Power Company is less “government owned” than Central Maine Power and Versant, which have major investments from foreign governments.

Berry is right. Iberdrola, CMP’s parent company, has investments from Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.  

Of course, about a decade ago, Berry railed against then-Gov. Paul LePage’s energy strategy. At that time, Berry was firmly on the side of Statoil, Norway’s government-owned energy company.  

LePage was an opponent of offshore wind development. Statoil had won a Public Utilities Commission bid process to build windmills with a big subsidy. LePage figured, although he opposed wind generally, if the state was going to issue a ratepayer-subsidized contract, the University of Maine should at least get a chance at it. So he pushed legislation that would do so. Statoil pulled out.

That brings us back to government-owned power companies.

The “Pine Tree Power Company” would absolutely be a “quasi-governmental” agency. Its proponents call it “consumer-owned,” but that is utility jargon at best. The essence of ownership gives someone the right of control. Owners choose directors, directors oversee management.

That is not what the initiative does. Instead, it creates a board elected from amalgamations of state Senate districts. Candidates can get tax dollars to run “clean election” campaigns. If you live in Grand Lake Stream in a wholly off-the-grid house, you aren’t a “consumer” of electricity. Yet you get a vote nonetheless.

Like government.

If you are a massive user of electricity, such as Pratt and Whitney in Berwick, you are a “consumer” of electricity. But corporations do not get a vote.

Like government.

The idea that the government — or a quasi-government agency — should manage electrical distribution infrastructure is not outlandish. If you need to send a package from Kittery to Fort Kent, you have the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and other options. Yet the couriers all travel state-run roads.  

Electricity supply could be the same. Buy your power from whomever you want, but it gets delivered to your house using common infrastructure.  

Yet that debate begins with honesty and civility. If you are worried about paying Maine dollars to foreign governments as utility investors, then do so consistently. Attacking small businesses for expressing their concerns is cowardly.

And the proposed referendum is a “quasi-governmental” takeover, whatever “deeply emotional aversions” people may have.

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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.