Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to float a new proposal for a consumer-owned utility that would be independent and have a voter-elected board in Augusta on Monday, April 19, 2021. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

A group opposing a consumer-owned utility effort in Maine filed on Monday to put a rival question on the ballot that would require voter approval of any new debt over $1 billion at a general election.

The proposed referendum covers any new large debt assumed by the state, but it is aimed at the creation of the Pine Tree Power Co., which would replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a utility run by an elected board. The new quasi-public would borrow billions of dollars at low rates against future revenue to buy out the utilities’ infrastructure.

The CMP-backed group Maine Affordable Energy filed the referendum paperwork on Monday with the office of Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. It could be on the 2022 ballot alongside up to two other bids to establish the consumer-owned utility. A bill to establish it passed the Maine Legislature earlier this year but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills in July.

Backers will try to get the proposed referendum on the ballot next year, said Willy Ritch, the executive director of Maine Affordable Energy, but that depends on the group’s ability to collect enough signatures. A new political group called “No Blank Checks” will be created to oversee the referendum effort, Ritch said.

The idea for a consumer-owned utility was first proposed in 2019 by lawmakers led by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, based on frustration over high rates by CMP and Emera Maine (now Versant), renewable energy policies and ongoing customer service issues.

An independent study subsequently found that a consumer-owned utility could increase electric rates initially but that the fees would go down over time. Berry amended his bill in July 2020, recommending further study on financial and other aspects of setting up an independent utility. The bill died when the Legislature adjourned at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Berry and other lawmakers floated a new bill in April that was passed by the Legislature but quashed by the Democratic governor. Responding to the referendum bid, Berry said he would “advise CMP and Versant to stop the bizarre political shenanigans, and instead do their job.”

However, Ritch and other opponents question the wisdom and potential high cost for the new utility to buy the assets of CMP and Versant.

“That’s a debt we could owe to banks and would spend decades paying off through our electric bills,” Ritch said.