In this July 19, 2023, file photo, Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media at the State House in Augusta. (AP photo by Robert F. Bukaty) Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills used a Wednesday radio address to formally oppose Question 3, the November referendum that would replace Maine’s two largest utilities with one governed by an elected board.

The Democratic governor’s opposition is no surprise: Mills vetoed legislation in 2021 to create a consumer-owned utility, a step that led to this year’s referendum, which she criticized earlier this month in a Maine Public interview as “a simple solution to a very complex problem.”

The referendum, if approved by voters, would have the state buy out the infrastructure of Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power and create a new Pine Tree Power Co. that would be overseen by seven elected board members and six appointed experts.

It is the highest profile referendum among the eight questions that will appear on the November ballot, with the foreign-owned parent companies of CMP and Versant spending more than $20 million so far to oppose it.

Pine Tree Power supporters argue it will lead to a more responsive and reliable utility amid CMP and Versant’s dismal outage and reliability rankings, while the utilities leading the opposition have argued it will cost $13.5 billion and bring uncertainty to the state’s electric grid. Public Advocate William Harwood took no stance on the question this month but said it is unknown whether cost, reliability and climate effects would improve under a new utility.

Mills said Wednesday she is on the side of the opponents, citing concerns over the cost, governing structure and expected litigation that could take years to resolve if the referendum is approved and the utilities have to squabble over the value of existing infrastructure.

“Look, I strongly believe that Maine consumers deserve high quality, reliable and competent service,” Mills said, pointing to legislation she signed two years ago that she argued set minimum standards for utilities, increased penalties and strengthened oversight of them.

But she said Question 3 amounts to “a hostile take-over that will cost billions of dollars to Maine ratepayers and inject partisanship into the delivery of our power.”

Willy Ritch, spokesperson for the CMP-linked Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, which opposes Question 3 and is backing a referendum to require voter approval for borrowing required under the plan, said Mills showed this is not a partisan issue.

“I think her concerns are exactly the same as I hear every day from voters across the state,” Ritch said.

But Mainers “aren’t looking to politicians like Gov. Mills to tell us how to vote this fall,” Al Cleveland, the campaign manager for Our Power, the group running the referendum campaign, said.

“Mainers are looking at our electric bills, neighbors and the existing consumer-owned utilities across the state that save people money,” Cleveland said.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...