Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, speaks at a rally outside the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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.

Maine lawmakers will vote Tuesday on Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would bar foreign government-owned companies from spending in referendums here.

The measure will go to the November ballot if lawmakers fail to get the two-thirds votes in both chambers needed to override it. That seems to be the most likely outcome, given an earlier 73-53 vote in the closely divided House of Representatives.

It would have a big effect on a growing element of Maine politics: utilities spending big to fight for their futures.

The change: Supporters of the ballot initiative, led by the political group Protect Maine Elections, seem to think they have things in the bag with the electorate. A poll commissioned by the group this spring found 82 percent support for the main part of its effort, which would apply to companies that are at least 5 percent owned by a foreign government.

This would bar Versant Power, the state’s second-biggest utility, from Maine referendums altogether, since its sole shareholder is the Canadian city of Calgary. Central Maine Power Co. has told Maine Public the initiative would not apply to it, but its Spanish parent is partially owned by governments including Qatar, which makes that assertion still an open question.

Big money: Both companies have lobbied against the change. Of course, it is not in effect yet, so both companies are free to spend as they wish against this referendum and the more sweeping proposed takeover of both utilities that is also going to the ballot this year.

On that front, CMP and Versant’s parent companies have poured money into political groups that spent a combined total of $17.1 million as of June 30.

That change, which would have the state borrow billions to buy out the infrastructure of the major utilities and put it under the control of an elected board, is the ultimate threat for CMP and Versant. Plus, CMP is leading a 2023 referendum to subject any future borrowing like this to voter approval, a change that could lead to another political battle down the road.

What they’re saying: In his statement criticizing Mills’ veto of the bill, Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, called the opponents of the idea “few, foreign and financially unfettered.” But the governor’s veto letter said the initiative would “likely result in the unintended consequences of effectively silencing legitimate voices.”

What’s next: The utilities are the only ones likely to spend big to defend their businesses in the public sphere. Their having to do so has been a trend in Maine politics over the last few years, which have also been marked by criticism of the utilities. The effect of the referendum could therefore be far-reaching down the road.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...