Consumer-owned utility referendum may not make Maine's 2022 ballot

·3 min read

Jan. 13—AUGUSTA, Maine — Two referendum campaigns that grew out of backlash to Maine's dominant utility may have to wait until 2023 after organizers signaled they may not have enough signatures to make the November ballot before a key deadline.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for groups to get their issues on the ballot, an already arduous process that requires submitting more than 63,000 signatures from registered Maine voters to the secretary of state's office by Jan. 31 after going to municipal clerks no more than 10 days earlier for approval.

Any lag in getting the more recently proposed questions could blunt momentum for both campaigns after Maine voters rejected the $1 billion Central Maine Power Co. corridor. The project is in limbo after a state regulator pulled a key permit.

The most sweeping question of the two that were targeted for the 2022 ballot would create a quasi-public agency to borrow billions of dollars to buy out the infrastructure of CMP and Versant Power and put the state's system in control of an elected board. The other would bar foreign governments from spending to influence Maine elections.

Two lawmakers helping run the efforts declined to answer questions on Wednesday about whether their campaigns had enough signatures, but both left open the possibility that the questions may not go to the ballot this year and could instead be targeted for 2023.

In Lewiston, city clerk Kathy Montejo said her office had only been presented with petitions totaling no more than 200 signatures by Our Power, the group running the public power bid. Her city usually sees hundreds or thousands of signatures from efforts that make the ballot.

Both of these campaigns rely more on grassroots support than the sides in the corridor fight, which saw record-breaking spending of more than $90 million. Our Power spent just more than $100,000 by the end of September, while Protect Maine Elections, the political committee backing the foreign money question, spent just more than $50,000 by then.

There are "great arguments" for putting the referendum on the ballot in either 2022 or 2023, said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who championed the Our Power proposal in the Legislature and serves as an advisor to the political committee pushing the initiative.

"I think we will be in due time letting the public know and letting our volunteers know what the plan is going forward," he said.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who is helping run the other campaign, had a "sense of urgency" to pass the referendum soon after the corridor vote because it was inspired by Hydro-Quebec's pro-corridor spending. It amounts to a broader campaign finance package, calling on Maine's congressional delegation to back an anti-corruption constitutional amendment.

"There is some currency there but from a policy point of view, if we make the 2022 ballot, it's not going to affect the 2022 election," Bennett said. "So, either 2022 or 2023 is fine."

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