The highest-profile of the eight questions on Maine’s Nov. 7 ballot is the push to replace Maine’s two biggest electric utilities with a new one governed by an elected board.
Question 3 aims to do that, while one of those utilities is promoting Question 1 as a potential vehicle to stop the takeover. Here’s what you need to know.
Question 3: Utility takeover
The question: Do you want to create a new power company governed by an elected board to acquire and operate existing for-profit electricity transmission and distribution facilities in Maine?
What your vote does: A yes vote would replace Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power with the new Pine Tree Power Co., governed by an elected board first tasked with buying out the utilities and hiring an operator to manage them. A no vote retains the status quo in which CMP and Versant are responsible for electric transmission and distribution in most of Maine.
Key context: A 2020 study conducted for the state found that a similar takeover would raise electric rates in the short term and lower them over time, largely because the new utility could borrow money at lower rates than the incumbent utilities.
Supporters amplify that argument by saying the utility could put more into operations without a profit motive. They note that CMP and Versant have fared poorly in customer approval and that an elected utility board would be more accountable to Mainers, although Public Advocate William Harwood has said customer service, reliability and climate benefits are all unknowns.
The utilities have run an expensive but simple campaign focusing on the upfront cost of buying out the utilities and the uncertainty of putting elected officials in control of the system. CMP and Versant say it would cost $13.5 billion to buy them out, but their book values are far lower. The ultimate total will likely be decided by the courts over a period of five to 10 years.
Our coverage: The BDN has gone deep on several elements of this far-reaching referendum, including how elections would shape utilities and lessons from Nebraska, the only state fully served by consumer-owned utilities. Recent ads have stretched the truth on Question 3, while CMP and Versant have run a large influence campaign featuring politicians of all stripes.
Question 1: Putting borrowing to votes
The question: Do you want to bar some quasi-governmental entities and all consumer-owned electric utilities from taking on more than $1 billion in debt unless they get statewide voter approval?
What your vote does: A yes vote on Question 1 would subject several types of public agencies to voter approval if they plan to borrow more than $1 billion. It is aimed at subjecting the borrowing required to complete the utility takeover under Question 3 to yet another vote. A no vote would allow that question to go through without another layer of approval.
Key context: This is a CMP-backed effort that attempts to jam up the borrowing required under Question 3. While both sides of that campaign disagree on the overall purchase price, they agree that it will be in the billions. That money would be borrowed against future revenue, so it would not raise taxes but would represent a major financial commitment.
This question would apply to other entities, including Maine’s university and community colleges and local consumer-owned utilities. However, they rarely ever seek to borrow this much, so the Legislature’s fiscal office has said Mainers should expect only rare votes if this passes.
Our coverage: Questions 1 and 3 can be essentially read as competing questions. Both sides were locked in a behind-the-scenes battle in 2021 to try to weaken each other’s item in the drafting stages. Language in each question now aims to trump the other, meaning that Maine could be headed for a legal standoff if both of them somehow pass.