Good morning from Augusta.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Everybody loves it,” said Belfast Harbor Master Katherine Given on the giant rubber duck that has appeared in Belfast harbor. “I have no idea who owns it, but it kind of fits Belfast. A lot of people want to keep it here.” Here’s your soundtrack.
What we’re watching today
Two possible referendum questions and a court defeat have Maine’s largest utility in a difficult position. Advocates of an electric utility takeover took a long-teased step on Monday to launch a referendum bid after the measure they championed passed the Legislature earlier this year but then fell to Gov. Janet Mills’ veto pen. If supporters can get just over 63,000 signatures, the question of borrowing billions against future revenue to buy out the infrastructure of Maine’s two dominant utilities and putting Maine’s electricity in control of an elected board would go to voters as soon as November 2022.
It comes as Central Maine Power Co. — the focus of utility critics’ ire since billing and service issues emerged a few years ago — has increasingly less control over its destiny. Last week, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said it may suspend its permit for the $1 billion hydropower corridor after a judge ruled that state leases over public land were invalid.
That ruling, which could lead to the corridor being rerouted and backers having to reapply for permits, may be an even bigger threat to the project than an anti-corridor referendum coming before Maine voters this November. When you add that to the specter of back-to-back referendum questions striking at the heart of CMP’s business, the road gets harder.
CMP has options. It and Versant Power, the state’s other big electric utility, have threatened lawsuits against the state if such a takeover passes. They would likely fight over the state’s authority to seize their assets and the price. At the very least, it would draw things out. Voters may see overhauling utility regulation as a more difficult sell than trying to stop the corridor.
But before last week, CMP had locked down the regulatory process to get the corridor permitted and its army of lobbyists used support from the Democratic governor and enough lawmakers to turn back bills posing threats. They have less control now that the process is in the legal and political realms and that is starting to show.
The Maine politics top 3
— “Desperate to escape solitary confinement, a Maine man’s plight deepens,” Callie Ferguson, Bangor Daily News: “Researchers have found that subjecting people to prolonged isolation can worsen troublesome behavior, especially for those with serious mental illnesses, eventually making it harder for them to transition back to society. That’s why in the past decade, Maine worked to reduce the practice to some of the lowest levels in the country, earning the state a national reputation as a model.”
The continued use of isolation in some cases is questioned by experts. Prison officials say the practice is used only when a prisoner’s behavior makes others unsafe. But for someone like Zachary Swain, who has been diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders, the prolonged use of solitary confinement has exacerbated the behaviors that landed him there, putting him in increased mental distress.
— “Susan Collins hits Biden administration for Afghanistan ‘chaos’ with Maine delegation split over exit,” Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper, BDN: “The delegation has been split on the idea of withdrawal since then-President Donald Trump announced in November he would reduce the number of troops by Jan. 15, a date that was twice pushed back. Collins and Sen. Angus King, an independent, were skeptical then and said it would empower the Taliban, while Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, praised it as a step toward ending the long conflicts.”
— “COVID cases force temporary closure of multiple Bangor-area restaurants,” Emily Burnham, BDN: “In some ways, it’s like going back to how it was before the vaccine,” said Greg Dugal of HospitalityMaine, the trade group that represents Maine’s restaurant and lodging industry. “At least now, with the vaccine, there’s a little more leeway in being able to piece it back together if you lose a staff member for 10 days due to a positive case.”
All but one of Maine’s counties are still subject to federal mask recommendations. Every county except Kennebec has seen at least 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the past week, according to state data, meaning masks are recommended in public indoor settings regardless of vaccination status.
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.
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