Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Good morning from Augusta. The Legislature’s watchdog committee will get a briefing from state officials on child welfare in Maine at 10 a.m. today. We are holding a listening session for politics readers on July 29. Register here.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I respected its determination,” said Jackson Hustus, who works in the Belfast area and took a video of an escaped calf that wandered around the city, eluding capture for days. “It ‘cowtowed’ to no one.” Extra credit for the pun. Here’s your soundtrack.

What we’re watching today

As the governor vetoed a takeover bill, she raised eyebrows by discussing regulatory ways to rein in utilities that have been long seen as a nuclear option. Tuesday brought an expected veto from Gov. Janet Mills of the high-profile bill that would ask voters to replace Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility. She cited unresolved questions about whether consumers would save money, the organizational structure and said the proposals advanced too quickly through the Legislature, with supporters of the bill saying they addressed many of those concerns and the arguments were weak.

But the veto letter and the Democratic governor’s news conference were nearly as notable for other reasons: She called the utilities’ track record “abysmal” and then raised the possibility of the Maine Public Utilities Commission using regulatory tools that could force the utilities out.

The right to a regulated monopoly only goes so far for CMP and Versant under Maine law. The utilities commission has the ultimate power to initiate a quasi-judicial proceeding that would force utility companies to divest if it is necessary to “protect the interest of the utility, ratepayers or investors.” It can also revoke the authority to do business here if it finds a utility unfit.

Mills stopped short of endorsing these outcomes, but she said that she wanted to learn more about them, while Phil Bartlett, the Mills-appointed commission chair, declined an interview on the governor’s remarks with a CMP rate increase case ahead of the panel on Wednesday. It comes after an audit found CMP’s ownership structure contributed to problems after the 2017 windstorm that kick-started complaints about the utility’s billing practices and service.

The commission issued the biggest earnings penalty in its history of $10 million against CMP last year, but utility critics have called their response inadequate. Mills’ comments will not assuage them when attached to this veto letter, but Tony Buxton, an energy lobbyist who represents large power consumers, said the governor’s comments must be “rocketing through” the utilities and their parent companies and should not be minimized.

“The regulators have to remember that they have all the power they need to protect the public interest and if they don’t use it, they lose it,” he said. “That’s the challenge.”

The Maine politics top 3

— “Janet Mills signs 1st-in-the-nation bill to shift recycling costs to packaging producers,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “The conversation over the law may not be over. [Sen. Rick] Bennett said in a Facebook post that opponents of the bill were meeting Wednesday to discuss a people’s veto effort, naming lobbyist Andrew Hackman, who represents the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, a national industry group. The senator declined to say how he knew that was happening.”

If those plans are happening, they would be in the preliminary stages. A lobbyist for the packaging industry declined to confirm any plans, but he said opponents are planning their next steps. The secretary of state’s office said no paperwork related to a people’s veto of the bill has been filed. Anyone looking to do so has until 10 days after the Legislature adjourns — whenever that happens — to do so.

— “While Maine COVID-19 cases stay low, contagious variant poses risks for unvaccinated,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “The state has recorded only five cases of the delta variant so far, but officials acknowledge that is an undercount. The number of cases undergoing genomic testing here has dropped in the past month, coinciding with an overall decline in infections. Maine has evaluated 68 samples from June compared to 783 in the month of May, though more June samples are still expected to be tested.”

While coronavirus infections in Maine have declined, they have doubled nationwide over the past three weeks. The seven-day average of confirmed cases climbed to about 23,600 a day earlier this week, up from 11,300 on June 23, according to Johns Hopkins University. Maine was one of only two states where cases did not climb during that period.

A new study found that widespread COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. have saved nearly 280,000 lives and prevented more than 1.2 million hospitalizations. But researchers at Yale University warned that could change if the delta variant is able to make a resurgence due to low vaccination rates.

— “Female officer sues Department of Corrections over discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” Judy Harrison, BDN: “The Maine Human Rights Commission investigator’s report concluded that the department ‘knew or should have known about the harassment’ [Autumn] Dinsmore was subjected to ‘and did nothing to stop it; instead, [the department] contributed to the hostile environment by disciplining [Dinsmore] more harshly than her male coworkers.’’”

Gideon donates more campaign money, still has more than $9M

The 2020 Democratic U.S. Senate nominee said Tuesday that she donated $1 million in leftover campaign funds to the state party and gave $757,000 more to nonprofits. Former House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, was left with more than $11 million in her campaign account at March’s end after record-setting fundraising during a losing bid to oust Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, last year. It’s her second round of donations since the campaign ended. 

Gideon has not yet filed an updated campaign finance report due tomorrow, but estimates based on her last filing suggest that she still has around $9.7 million in her campaign account. That is money she could still transfer toward a future run for federal office — a possibility she looks to be leaving open.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews, Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at candrews@bangordailynews.com, jpiper@bangordailynews.com or mshepherd@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...