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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills used almost a minute of her State of the State address on Tuesday to say Maine should reconsider how it regulates utilities after spending much of the past year as a top defender of Central Maine Power’s proposed hydropower corridor.
The remarks were a surprise in the speech, sparking some confusion from lawmakers and showing the diversity of opinions on the subject as Maine’s largest utility weathers public opinion crises amid an existential threat from some who want a statewide consumer-owned utility.
In her speech, Mills noted dissatisfaction with the “regulatory framework under which these utilities operate.” She then asked for guidance in making sure foreign companies that run state utilities “are answerable to Maine, not to Spain or some other foreign country,” a veiled reference to the home country of Iberdrola, CMP’s parent company.
“Let’s work together to ensure that Maine consumers are at the table, that profits do not take precedence over service, and that utilities are accountable and answerable to the people of Maine,” she said.
Depending on who you talk to around the State House, the Democratic governor’s comments were a criticism of the state’s enforcement of its rules, support for a consumer-owned utility measure or an acknowledgement of how much power the major utilities have in Maine.
Opponents of CMP’s $1 billion corridor proposal are aiming to put a question to kill the project on the November ballot. The utility has dealt with reports of high bills, complaints of poor service and has been rated the least popular utility in the country. The PUC this week denied CMP a rate increase request despite support from its staff.
Maine’s other large utility, Emera Maine, has not been embroiled like the southern Maine utility, but it is the subject of a planned sale to an Alberta-based company that remains controversial because the company, ENMAX, plans to buy it through borrowing.
Mills took a political leap in February 2019 when she became one of the earliest public backers of CMP’s corridor proposal, defending it on the basis of its alleged carbon reduction impact and a multimillion dollar benefits package to the state. She vetoed legislative measures aimed at hindering the project last year, though she said she won’t be involved with any referendum.
When asked to explain her remarks at an event in Portland on Wednesday, Mills deferred to her press office. Spokesperson Lindsay Crete said Mills’ Tuesday comments referred to her “continued concern” with CMP’s ongoing issues and the governor is “interested in determining whether there may be options to strengthen regulatory oversight” of utilities.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a CMP critic who wants the state to buy out the two major utilities in favor of a consumer-owned utility, said the governor was “speaking my language.”
While Berry and Mills have clashed on the corridor, his bill to enshrine the consumer-owned utility was turned into a study on the issue before it was signed by the governor last year. That report from the Maine Public Utilities Commission is due back to the Legislature in February.
“She was saying a lot with those words, and I very much appreciated the new language that she used,” Berry said.
The state’s two largest utilities had little to say. Doug Herling, the CEO of CMP, said in a statement the company is open to ideas that would make them more responsive, while Emera Maine spokesperson Judy Long said utilities should be held accountable through the existing regulatory framework but didn’t address Mills’ comments specifically.
Phil Bartlett, who chairs the Maine Public Utilities Commission, said there’s room to explore whether what kind of regulatory changes could be made to ensure good customer service. However, he said the state now has “substantial tools” to ensure compliance.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the comments are a sign that people’s frustration with CMP’s “cumulative failures” has reached a tipping point in the state and that lawmakers may now be willing to do something about it.
“I don’t think anybody should underestimate how big a job is it to have a utility that really serves the public’s interest,” Voorhees said.