Good morning from Augusta. We are holding a listening session for politics readers on July 29. Register here.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “You can come throw axes, eat dinner, and then have a drink and see a band,” said Greg Hawes about his new barbecue and ax-throwing enterprise in Bangor, set to open next week. “We think it’s something that appeals to all different types of people. We want to be a destination restaurant.”
What we’re watching today
There does not seem to be a hurry to find Maine’s next public advocate. The position, created to give customers a voice in how the state’s utilities operate, has been held by longtime public servant Barry Hobbins since 2017, who announced his intent to step down earlier this year. He was appointed by former Gov. Paul LePage, and has served during some of the trickiest utility cases in recent years, including billing and disconnection scandals that have served as the kindling for much of the resentment currently directed at Central Maine Power.
At least five people are currently in the running, according to someone with knowledge about the appointment. However, only one, former two-term Jay lawmaker Christina Riley, confirmed that she is interested in the role. A master electrician and Democrat who lost her bid for reelection last year, Riley has been critical of the Public Utilities Commission’s oversight of Maine utilities, but recently said stronger oversight — not a takeover, as lawmakers weighed this session and Gov. Janet Mills ultimately vetoed — is necessary to improve service.
If Riley were appointed, she would be the first woman to serve in the public advocate role. It is not clear who her competition is — the governor’s office did not return a request for comment about prospective nominees. Even Hobbins said he does not know who is in the running to replace him. But there is no risk of the role going unfilled: while Hobbins said he planned to retire at the end of the legislative session, which came to a close just this past Monday, state law allows him to continue serving until his replacement is found.
There will be plenty of work awaiting the next public advocate. CMP customers will see a double-digit rate increase next month, a function of a federally mandated regional tariff that will be used to maintain electrical infrastructure. Efforts to rein in spending of the utility’s parent company on referendums and to ask voters to create a consumer-owned utility may have failed in the Legislature this session, but the frustration and resentment that spurred those efforts has not, with a referendum meant to block CMP’s powerline project headed to voters this fall. Mills has called for stricter oversight of the utilities. A case to develop metrics that would aim to increase performance and control costs, changing how utilities operate in Maine, is ongoing at the utilities commission.
The Maine politics top 3
— “Maine National Guard troops will deploy to Mexican border,” Callie Ferguson, Bangor Daily News: “They are expected to take up similar duties as a Maine unit that deployed to the border in October, when about 120 Maine National Guard soldiers with the 262nd Engineer Company helped Customs and Border Protection agents with non-law enforcement duties, such as monitoring surveillance cameras, [Maj. Carl] Lamb said. That unit is expected to return in the fall, he said.”
— “Maine is seeing COVID-19 cases rise, but not as much as they are in most of the US,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “Maine’s high vaccination rate — 78.5 percent of adults have received at least one dose, the fifth highest rate in the U.S. — is likely one factor keeping cases down. But the rise in infections, which comes nearly two months after Maine lifted most COVID-19 related precautions, still comes as a concern given the national trends and worries about the more contagious delta variant.”
— “Maine homes sales rise 15 percent in June, continuing hot streak,” Lori Valigra, BDN: “The high sales reflect pent-up buyer demand, Aaron Bolster, president of the realtor association, said. Homes across the state continue to go under contract quickly and with multiple offers. The average time a home sat on the market statewide was six days, compared with 14 last June, he said.”
Ethics commission could probe possible 2018 shell donation
The staff of the Maine Ethics Commission is recommending an investigation into a group that made a $150,000 contribution to the Maine Democratic Party in October 2018. Alpine Initiatives LLC formed that month and made the donation just a few days later, according to Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission. The business — which had little presence beyond basic corporate records and no obvious sources of revenue — dissolved a year later.
The ethics commission staff suggested probing the group to determine if it should have been required to register as a political action committee. The commission will take up the issue at its meeting next Friday. Here’s your soundtrack.
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Jessica Piper and Caitlin Andrews. 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.
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