AUGUSTA, Maine — A sweeping measure to ask voters to approve a takeover of the state’s two major electric utilities and have an elected board control the grid is on track to head to a skeptical Gov. Janet Mills after passing the Maine Senate on Wednesday.
The bill, from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, is perhaps the most high-profile bill before the Maine Legislature this year and evolved over three years as Central Maine Power faced a steady stream of criticism over its $1 billion hydropower corridor, myriad customer service issues and customer satisfaction rates that are lower than any other U.S. electric utility.
CMP and Versant Power, the state’s other dominant utility, would have their infrastructure bought out under the proposal at an expected cost of between $5 billion and $13.5 billion. The grid would then be put under the control of a new Pine Tree Power Company, which would have seven elected members and borrow against future revenues to fund itself.
The Senate approved the measure in a 19-16 vote on Wednesday. It faces further action in both chambers. It is likely to be sent to the Democratic governor after the House of Representatives passed it narrowly in an initial vote on Wednesday, but it does not have the two-thirds support in both chambers to avoid a likely veto from Mills.
“It’s our best shot to achieve lower costs, reliable power and local control managed by Mainers and accountable only to us,” said Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, a top CMP critic who was only one of two Republicans to back the bill in the upper chamber.
At a Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Wednesday, the Democratic governor listed concerns from property taxes to the makeup of an elected board, saying the question that would ask voters to approve the new utility in the November election reads like a campaign slogan.
“So I think that this idea requires a lot more research, a lot more thought,” Mills said.
Supporters of the measure say the new company would be more responsive and benefit from lower government borrowing rates. Maine would be only the second state to have one dominant consumer-owned utility. CMP, Versant and their allies have promised a protracted legal fight and said Maine ratepayers would be assuming a massive risk in taking over the grid.
On the Senate floor, opponents of the bill said they were not defending all of CMP’s recent behavior, but that the risks of the proposal outweigh potential benefits.
“This is nothing more than a socialist takeover of privately owned companies in the state of Maine,” said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle.
BDN writer Lori Valigra contributed to this report.