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.
The November ballot may sneak up on a lot of people this odd-numbered year, with eight items on it from a major electric utility overhaul to a more minor group of constitutional amendments.
Three questions on that slate are sticking out so far because of the parties involved: the utility takeover contained in Question 3, a Central Maine Power Co.-backed Question 1 that would subject the public borrowing for the takeover to another vote and Question 4 over a “right to repair” law.
Question 3, which would buy out the infrastructure of CMP and Versant Power and put it under the control of an elected board, has already been the subject of major spending and public debate. Groups funded by the parents of those two utilities spent $18.6 million by the end of June on the utility-related questions.
What they’re saying: One key feature of the utility side of these referendums are retainer payments to an ideologically diverse group of political figures from CMP corridor opponent and former state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, former Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, and former Maine Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden.
The public-facing part of the campaign is straightforward. A CMP-affiliated group is hammering home the utilities’ estimated purchase price of $13.5 billion for the infrastructure. It is not clear whether this would actually be the purchase price if the question passed. Proponents of the takeover think it will be far lower, and any final price would likely be the subject of legal proceedings.
Our Power, the group running the campaign to take over the utilities, raised just under $800,000 as of June, forcing them to run more of a grassroots race. They have gotten bumps from liberal news outlets across the country, including The Progressive Magazine, which published a story this week saying the idea “could set a national precedent for giving power to the people.”
They are focusing on the idea that an elected board would be more responsive to ratepayers and would not have to generate profits for shareholders. A 2020 report for the Maine Public Utilities Commission found that rates may go up initially under this kind of arrangement, but they could decrease over time in part because it could benefit from lower borrowing rates.
Right to repair: We are also starting to hear from the repair shops behind Question 4, which is part of their war against the automotive industry’s shift toward proprietary diagnostic software. One of their first ads features independent shops making their case against forcing people toward “expensive dealerships.”
Big automakers that spent heavily against a similar question that easily passed in Massachusetts but remains stalled in the courts have not done much here to date, but they have branded the question as a way for repair shops and aftermarket parts companies to get further access to customer data.
What’s next: The utility changes in Question 3 are major. CMP and its allies have focused on the risk involved in it, while Our Power is trying to draw from a base of utility critics while making a mix of cost and climate arguments.
Both that and the right to repair question will almost certainly be subject to lawsuits if they pass. It seems like the basic arguments here won’t change much between now and Election Day. On those two points, these questions have something in common on the way to November.