Good morning from Augusta. It is a crucial day for Central Maine Power’s proposed $1 billion transmission line, which faces a Thursday vote by the Maine Public Utilities Commission that is the first of several regulatory approvals it needs to move forward.
On the eve of that vote, the Legislature’s energy committee spent hours Wednesday holding public hearings on bills aimed at the 145-mile corridor proposal, including one that would make every town in its path approve the transmission line at referendum before it is built.
Droves of the controversial project’s opponents lodged largely general criticisms of the corridor and argued for local control, while CMP and its allies warned lawmakers against monkeying with regulatory processes that are both close to being finished and ongoing.
Debate on Thursday’s bills centered on Maine’s tradition of local control, suspicion of CMP and a predictable regulatory process. The bills being heard on Wednesday included the town-approval bill from Rep. Seth Berry, the energy panel’s co-chair and a CMP critic, and two other bills to make it harder to use eminent domain for transmission line projects. Berry said it’s “unfortunate that a sense of inevitability” has cropped up around the corridor project and the Legislature “has a job” when it comes to regulating the line.
Dozens of anti-corridor activists testified, including First Selectman Elizabeth Caruso of Caratunk, who said local control is “a key factor to public safety, the local economy and public welfare.” Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, a Wilton selectman, cited the Maine Constitution’s provision ensuring home rule.
There is lots of suspicion about the carbon impact of the pipeline. Another bipartisan bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, would mandate an emissions study before the western Maine corridor bringing Quebec hydropower to the regional grid is approved.
A study for the utilities commission often cited by Gov. Janet Mills, a proponent, found the corridor would reduce emissions per year in New England by the equivalent of removing 767,000 cars from the road, though a review for opposition groups said the contract doesn’t preclude Hydro-Quebec from diverting hydropower from other markets to fulfill the contract.
Tony Buxton, a lobbyist for industrial power users that support the corridor and helped negotiate a $250 million, 40-year benefits package from CMP, said Hydro-Quebec “can’t prove a negative” to say that “some electron from fossil fuels” isn’t coming onto the New England grid.
Other supporters cautioned lawmakers from changing the regulatory process, with Ben Dudley, a lobbyist for a coalition of business groups, saying Berry’s bill is “an 11th hour disruption to well-established permitting policies that carefully balance the diversity of public interests.”
The utilities commission is expected to approve the corridor that its staff supports, but found some faults with in a recent report. The commission meets to consider the project today at 9 a.m. and other state permitting processes are ongoing.
The expectation underlying the support for the project after the benefits package from Mills and Public Advocate Barry Hobbins is that the utilities commission appointed by former Gov. Paul LePage would approve the corridor with or without the extra money from CMP. Its staff said the project was in the public interest last month.
However, their report also noted the benefits package is only worth between $72 million and $85 million in today’s dollars because of inflation. It also cited CMP’s “unsettling disregard” in communicating with local stakeholders and an “adverse and significant” impact on scenery that are nevertheless outweighed by the project’s benefits.
Dems pick special election candidate
Democrats have picked their nominee to run in a special election to replace a state representative who resigned last month for health reasons. Former state Rep. Steve Moriarty was chosen this past Sunday in a joint caucus of the Cumberland and Gray Democratic committees. Moriarty, a former town councilor who served one term in the Legislature from 2012 to 2014, will represent the Democrats in the June 11 special election for House District 45 to replace former Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland.
Denno resigned in late March because he has lung cancer. He had been re-elected in November to represent Cumberland and part of Gray. The candidate elected in Denno’s place will serve out the rest of his term, which would have ended in December 2020.
Republicans in the district have yet to select a nominee. Denno won his seat in 2016 by defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Michael Timmons, who had beaten the Democrat by 16 votes in 2014.
All party caucus nominations are due to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office by 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 18. Non-party candidates who submit at least 50 signatures from voters in the district by that deadline will qualify for the ballot. Write-in candidates must declare their candidacy by the same time on Thursday, April 25.
Today in A-town
The House and Senate will convene for the first time in a week, after taking off Tuesday to allow lawmakers to attend the memorial service for a Maine State Police detective who died while aiding a motorist last week. The advance calendars are filling up with bill and resolution referrals from committees. But it’s hard to predict what measures will go to floor votes, as leaders routinely take items out of order.
Bills up for debate in legislative committees this afternoon include regulation of charter schools, excise taxes on marijuana sales, and more restrictions on the marketing and distribution of tobacco products.
The Judiciary Committee will likely vote on a bill from Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, to allow attorneys access to otherwise confidential records relating to alleged child abuse if they’re representing a person charged with committing a related crime. Listen here.
The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry could vote on a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, which would allow the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to build a new district headquarters in Fort Kent. Listen here.
The Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology will consider a bill from Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Camden, to bar the Public Utilities Commission from changing net energy billing rules and remove the cap on the number of accounts or meters customers can designate for net energy billing. Another bill up for a vote from Miramant would require power companies to buy renewably-generated electricity at a price that represents 50 percent of the average cost per kilowatt-hour to generate that electricity using a fossil fuel. Listen here.
— Maine’s highly charged debate over school vaccination mandates will next play out in the Senate and House. The Legislature’s education committee on Wednesday recommended passage of a bill sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to the state’s school immunization requirements. The panel also recommended against a bill from Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, that would have loosened restrictions on what could be classified as a medical exemption. Mills’ administration supports Tipping’s bill, which all Republicans on the education committee opposed. Last month’s committee hearing on the bills stretched into the next morning, and as majority Democrats shepherd it through the legislative process, Republican complaints that it violates personal and parental rights have intensified.
— Testimony from Maine crime lab analysts moved lawmakers to tears. During Wednesday’s hearing on a bill that would make them eligible for earlier retirement like some law enforcement officers, analysts and others who evaluate evidence during investigations of often brutal crimes told the Legislature’s labor committee that the work they do takes a serious toll on their emotional and personal lives. For now, the civilian employees who work with the crime lab qualify for the state’s regular pension plan. Because they equate the stress that their work causes with that of frontline law enforcement officers, they want to join a pension program established in 1998 for public safety workers who are allowed to retire at age 55 after 25 years of service.
— The president made it harder for states to block gas and oil pipelines. In his latest slap at environmentalists, President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed two executive orders designed to speed up oil and gas pipeline projects. The action came after officials in Washington state and New York used the permitting process to stop new energy projects in recent years. Trump’s administration has often championed giving states more policymaking authority, but in this instance, his affinity for fossil fuels won out over the states’ rights principle.
— A Maine State Prison inmate died six days before he was to be released. In a prepared statement, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty wrote that Paul Rivera, 53, who was nearing the end of an 11-year sentence, died Wednesday morning. Liberty said no foul play or any other suspicious activity is suspected.
Maine of Thrones
I was a bit of a latecomer to the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon, despite my love for a good — or even a bad — swords-and-sandals fantasy. Throw in dragons and a variation on zombies and how could you not be hooked?
When the show first started airing, we didn’t have cable or satellite. And I didn’t have many friends. So, like a lumbering giant who could only mumble his name, I kept to myself during the fervid Monday discussions about what had unfolded the previous night.
I eventually caught up and am binge watching previous seasons — not when I am supposed to be working, boss, I swear — to review for Sunday night’s first episode of the final season. The BDN’s Emily Burnham offers this helpful guide for how to prep for that big screen event, including some tips on how to maximize the experience in Maine. I plan to just pour some wine and settle in with my wife and three foster kittens — our version of dragons — to see who dies next.
Unlike some GOT fans who revel in the intrigue, I don’t even try to keep up with the vendettas, bastard sons and palace intrigue. Instead, I drift off during long legislative committee hearings and in my mind match characters from the show with figures from Maine’s political universe.
Which Maine political figure would be the “king slayer?” Is there an obvious choice to crown as the Pine Tree State’s “mother of dragons?” And who among Maine’s political crowd could most appropriately be told, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
It’s a devilish diversion, but — in the name of self-preservation — I’ll keep my answers to myself. But feel free to take a stab at it yourselves — see what I did there? — and send your ideas by raven to our State House bureau or by email to the addresses below. 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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