The fight over Central Maine Power’s $1 billion proposal for a transmission line from Quebec to Massachusetts via western Maine has played out in TV ad volleys and small-town votes, but it moves to the Legislature on Friday.
Opponents are planning a rally ahead of a hearing on a bipartisan bill that could throw a wrench into the controversial project’s permitting process — assuming the Maine Public Utilities Commission green-lights the corridor supported by Gov. Janet Mills with a staff recommendation from the commission due in April.
Democrats and Republicans want the state to study emissions reductions that have been a point of contention before it permits the line. The fight over the corridor through western Maine that would transmit Hydro-Quebec power to Massachusetts has gotten super-charged in the last few months — particularly after Mills, a Democrat, backed the project last month.
Mills got elected behind a reasonably aggressive plan on climate change and since taking office, she has laid out a goal of getting all of Maine’s energy supply from renewable sources by 2050, though that doesn’t attack the state’s highest-in-the-nation reliance on heating oil.
In that vein, the governor’s main argument for the project revolved around emissions reductions. She cited a 2018 study for the utilities commission finding that the corridor would reduce emissions annually in New England by the equivalent of taking 767,000 cars off the roads and touted a $250 million, 40-year benefits package that includes ratepayer relief.
All of these items are questioned by skeptics, led on the policy front by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which commissioned a review alongside other groups last year that said the terms of the contract with Massachusetts don’t preclude Hydro-Quebec from diverting hydropower from other markets to fulfill the new deal, which could offset emissions reductions.
Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec have rejected that, saying the provincial-owned utility has surplus hydropower that can fulfill Massachusetts’ needs. The utilities commission is scheduled to decide on the project later this month and state and federal permitting processes would come next.
The bill up for a public hearing before a legislative committee on Friday would make the Maine Department of Environmental Protection study emissions reductions — in New England, Quebec and elsewhere — from the project. It’s sponsored by Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, who spent more than two decades as head of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, alongside six other Democrats and three Republicans.
Opponents of the project will show up to rally for the bill today, highlighting the messy politics of the line. An opposition group called Say NO to NECEC — a reference to the project’s formal name, the New England Clean Energy Connect — will rally at the State House at noon in favor of Carson’s bill and to urge the utilities commission and other regulatory agencies to reject the needed permits.
The project is making strange allies all over the place. Mills was skeptical of the project during her 2018 campaign, but she has ended up on the same side as her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, who supported the corridor before a prior New Hampshire route was officially taken off the table. The Natural Resources Council of Maine is opposite other environmental groups including the Conservation Law Foundation and alongside fossil-fuel and biomass generators.
Several towns oppose the corridor, including Wilton, which took a resounding non-binding vote early this month. Farmington, the biggest town in Franklin County and the governor’s hometown, will take a similar vote at its town meeting on March 25. This makes it clear why legislators are coming together to oppose the project and constitute a threat to it now.
Mills signs supplemental budget
The governor on Thursday signed three bills into law, including her $7.5 million supplemental budget. The bipartisan-backed spending package, which Mills said “honors the state government’s obligations and makes important policy chances that will help us fight the opioid epidemic, includes repealing the state’s two-year limits on Medicaid-funded methadone and suboxone for opioid addiction.
It also includes $2.5 million in disaster relief funds for communities hit hard by the October 2017 windstorm; $1 million for the state’s bicentennial celebration next year; $400,000 to lease accessible voting machines; and $320,000 for Office of the Public Advocate case support for ratepayers defending themselves against Emera Maine and Central Maine Power billing.
Mills also signed LD 251, which amends the Maine Condominium Act by extending the lien period for not paying assessments, and LD 39, which renames the Interstate 295 bridge that crosses Main Street in Waterville after a U.S. Army Specialist Wade A. Slack, who, at 21, was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
Today in A-town
After a busy week, most lawmakers are in for a slow Friday. The Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs will hear presentations on funding for agriculture, conservation and forestry departments, programs and commissions as part of the ongoing public hearing on Mills’ $8 billion biennial budget.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is scheduled to decide whether to recommend passage of four different county jail funding bills. Two bills — LD 691 from Rep. Tina Riley, D-Jay, and LD 678 from Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway — call for the state to fund at least 20 percent of the cost it takes to run all 15 of Maine’s county jails.
The third bill, LD 755 from Riley, would remove part of the state’s county jail funding formula that would otherwise cap state funding if the county tax assessment on correctional services increases. The fourth, LD 460, from Stanley, calls to adjust that same statute, but instead of changing the funding formula, the bill would require the state to reimburse the county jail the difference, if its annual cost exceeded that year’s collected assessment.
— As he prepares to leave, the leader of Maine’s university system told lawmakers that the system is stronger despite immediate fiscal problems. Chancellor James Page, who will retire at the end of the school year, listed achievements Thursday in his annual address to legislators. He urged them to embrace Mills’ budget proposals that would add $10 million for the university system next year, saying the added money would ensure progress on initiatives such as a burgeoning early college program and would forestall the need for major tuition increases. He did not mention a $3.2 million shortfall in the current budget. Staff are recommending that the university pull $1.4 million from its reserves at the University of Maine at Augusta, $494,277 at its Machias campus, and $425,000 at its law school in Portland to make up for the shortfall.
— Maine’s senior senator touted a refueling unit based in the city where she lives to top Air Force brass. During Thursday’s hearing before a defense appropriations subcommittee she chairs, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins sang the praises of the Bangor-based 101st Air Refueling Wing to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, and pressed them for ongoing support. “The 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor has long been a workhorse unit for the Air Force, typically supporting more than 1,000 transient aircrafts annually and deploying personnel at a very high rate worldwide,” Collins told the two Air Force leaders. “What are we doing to make sure that a workhorse unit like this refueling wing has the resources it needs at a time when it’s still deploying individuals at a great rate?”
— The U.S. Senate joined the House in voting against the president’s border emergency declaration, but not by enough to override a veto. Collins joined 11 other Republican senators, as well as all Democrats and independents, in a 59-41 vote to cancel President Donald Trump’s February proclamation of a border emergency, which he invoked to spend $3.6 billion more for border barriers than Congress had approved. Trump now says he will veto the bill and move ahead with plans to use federal funds taken from other appropriations to build his promised border wall.
A gift to ourselves
Today is Maine’s 199th birthday. Happy birthday to us.
Always the planners, we’ve been pondering what kind of gift would be most appropriate for next year’s bicentennial. After much deliberation, the best idea seems to be to take Massachusetts back and make it part of Maine.
Folks there talk funny, drive badly, govern corruptly and are way too full of themselves. But in the 199 years since Maine spurned them, they have improved their education system and managed to come up with a decent economy and health care network. And — at long last — their professional sports teams are consistently good.
They also understand the proper use of “wicked.”
Annexing Massachusetts could be the solution to Maine’s most pressing challenges, including “what do you give to a 200-year-old on her birthday?”
We’d have to find tourists from another state to hate all summer, but that should not be hard. This year’s Massholes could be next year’s Connecticuthroats? Or should that be Connecticutworms? Here is your soundtrack. –– Robert Long
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.
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