AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives advanced a bill Wednesday to bar foreign government-owned companies from spending on state ballot questions after a Canadian energy company dumped millions into the Central Maine Power corridor referendum fight last year.
The bill — co-sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth — would outlaw companies with a foreign government ownership stake of greater than 10 percent from making contributions to ballot question committees or carrying out independent expenditures to support or oppose a referendum. It passed the House on Wednesday in a 76-55 vote.
It is the first high-profile bill on legislative floors in 2021 coming out of the contentious referendum campaign looking to stymie the CMP corridor project, which is currently under construction but faces legal challenges and a November referendum from opponents.
The proposed ban gained momentum following significant spending by Hydro Quebec, a Canadian energy company, to influence potential ballot questions about the CMP corridor. After a first referendum on the corridor was declared unconstitutional last year, corridor opponents mounted a second petition this year aiming to halt the transmission line’s construction.
Hydro-Quebec, which has an agreement to supply the transmission line with hydropower, has dumped more than $9 million into its ballot question committee since the start of 2020 to oppose both referendums, according to state data.
The bill received pushback from some in the state’s business community, who worried that the provisions limiting political spending by companies with foreign ownership were overly broad and could exclude participation by American businesses with foreign investors. It faces further action in both chambers.
The vote previewed later legislative fights about the corridor. Both sides have bipartisan coalitions, but the anti-corridor side looks bigger after it was a major issue in the 2020 elections. On Wednesday, 67 Democrats backed the campaign finance bill alongside three independents and six Republicans. The losing side was made up of 48 Republicans and seven Democrats.
Proponents argued the bill would close a loophole in the state’s election laws, saying it was nonsensical that companies could spend on referendums when they are unable to contribute to candidates.
“We cannot leave this loophole open and take the risk that hostile governments will not exploit it in our future,” Grohoski said.
Rep. Chris Caiazzo, D-Scarborough, was one of two Democrats to speak against the bill. A vocal supporter of the corridor, he couched the proposal as being possibly unconstitutional and said it would have long-lasting implications for the state’s economic future if it were to pass.
“We cannot in all good conscience legitimately ask companies to invest millions in Maine people, our communities and our economy and pay their fair share of local and state taxes, and then mute them when it comes time to advocate for positions that directly affect them,” he said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not specify that the foreign companies being barred from Maine referendum campaigns would be those with government ownership.