AUGUSTA, Maine — The high-profile measure to ask Maine voters to buy out the infrastructure of the state’s two dominant utilities and put an elected board in control of the system was revived on Wednesday after a last-minute change swayed a wavering lawmaker.
The bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, was tracking for passage in the Legislature until two senators dramatically defected to prevent Senate passage earlier this month. It sent proponents, spurred largely by long-standing frustrations with Central Maine Power Co., scrambling to amend the measure over concerns about municipal tax revenue.
They prevailed on Wednesday, pushing the measure through the Senate on a 18-15 vote. It awaits further action in both legislative chambers. While it faces a certain veto from Gov. Janet Mills, who spoke out against the bill ahead of other votes earlier this month, getting it to the Democratic governor’s desk would be a milestone for supporters.
CMP and its allies have assailed the bill on many fronts, saying ratepayers will assume massive risks if they take over the system and buy the infrastructure at a cost of billions to be borrowed at low rates against future revenues. Mayors of major cities reiterated those arguments in recent days while also questioning whether the revenue they now get from CMP would be secure.
Berry’s bill initially tried to shield local revenue by making the new Pine Tree Power Co. subject to payments in lieu of property taxes that equal taxes currently paid to cities and towns by CMP and Versant Power. Mills and others warned the payments may not be enforceable, so Berry amended his bill on Wednesday to make the new utility pay property taxes.
“We will not be dependent on a grid which is owned and run by those from far away who may have no interest in our future and our energy decisions here in Maine,” Berry said during a floor speech prior to the House vote.
But opponents decried the amendment as being too vague and losing any benefit the utility would have had as being a nonprofit exempt from taxation. Skeptics reiterated that they viewed the bill as a “government takeover” that would not address problems with the utilities.
“It’s a desperate attempt to make a bad bill a little less bad,” said Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle. “But that doesn’t mean that we should support it in this body.”
Berry’s change won over Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, who was one of two senators who flipped to derail final passage earlier this month. The House endorsed the bill in a 77-68 vote earlier in the day.
The margins still remain far short of the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a Mills veto. Proponents of the effort have promised to gather signatures for a referendum in 2022 if it fails to clear the Legislature and Mills’ veto pen this year.