Maine voters on Tuesday rejected an effort to replace Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power with a new electric utility overseen by an elected board, giving the unpopular utilities a political victory.
The no side of Question 3, the highest-profile referendum among the eight questions on Tuesday’s ballot, had 68 percent of votes to 32 percent for the yes side when the Bangor Daily News and Decision Desk HQ called the race at 10:03 p.m. Tuesday.
It was a political victory for CMP and Versant, whose parent companies poured nearly $39 million into saving their businesses in a campaign fronted by notable political figures. Our Power, the political group that backed the referendum, was outgunned financially, spending only $1.2 million over the course of the race.
“With this referendum behind us, we are turning the page,” CMP spokesperson Jon Breed said in a statement. “As we look forward, we must continue to modernize our grid to support Maine’s climate change goals, connect new renewable resources, and electrify our communities.”
Our Power said in a statement that it started a “critically important conversation that does not end today.”
Mainers also on Tuesday passed the CMP-backed Question 1, which aimed to hinder Question 3 if it passed by requiring voters to approve a public utility borrowing more than $1 billion. There would have been a legal showdown if both questions passed, but Question 1 is expected to have little effect by itself.
The utility takeover referendum was the brainchild of former Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who traveled the state four years ago in an attempt to build public support. He was fighting Maine’s history and the powerful utilities. CMP fended off a similar referendum that voters overwhelmingly rejected almost exactly 50 years ago.
Question 3 called for a new Pine Tree Power Co. that would borrow billions to buy out the utilities’ infrastructure. It would have been controlled by a seven-member elected board that would pick six experts to help with oversight.
Nebraska is alone in the United States for having a statewide public utility model. The Pine Tree Power question received national attention, particularly among progressives. But it never fully won over Democrats on the ground in Maine, with one pre-election poll finding them evenly split on the question in an ominous sign for Question 3 supporters. Republicans generally opposed it.
CMP had a powerful ally in Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, who opposed this year’s referendum and vetoed a similar utility takeover bill in 2021. Question 3 supporters and opponents were not neatly split, with environmental and labor groups also differing on it.
CMP parent Avangrid is owned by Spanish firm Iberdrola, which is partially owned by Qatar and Norway, and Versant is owned by a company overseen by the Canadian city of Calgary, Alberta, as its sole shareholder. Pine Tree Power supporters criticized the investor-backed ownership, customer service issues and repeated rate hikes for CMP and Versant customers.
Like Maine’s 2021 vote against CMP’s western Maine hydropower corridor, the effort developed in large part due to dissatisfaction with the utilities. CMP and Versant have finished last in approval surveys. CMP’s previously good standing with Mainers tanked after widespread customer service and billing issues that emerged in 2017.
But the utilities who led the opposition said the new utility would inject politics into the grid and repeatedly in ads that the infrastructure buyout would cost about $13.5 billion. The push to pass Question 3 was also wracked by hard-to-answer questions on how the new utility would work.
For example, Public Advocate William Harwood, who did not take a position on the referendum, said in September it could take five to 10 years to resolve litigation over the “fair market value” of utility assets. Harwood’s office also said it was not possible to predict whether Pine Tree Power would lead to improved customer service, reliability and environmental benefits.
At the polls on Tuesday, it was easy to find even utility skeptics who were voting with them. In Auburn, Heather Stowe, a 45-year-old Maine Turnpike Authority worker, said while she didn’t like CMP, the new regime would bring too much uncertainty.
“Do we want to unplug something that’s working already?” asked Paul Cote, a 60-year-old business owner from Bangor. “When something is working, leave it alone.”
BDN writer Kathleen O’Brien contributed to this report.