Legislation that would silence foreign companies during Maine ballot campaigns gets first look

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Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Mar. 15—Several bills that would make it illegal for Hydro-Quebec to spend money on a powerline referendum campaign in Maine drew conflicting testimony in a public hearing before the Legislature on Monday.

The three bills, offered by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would prohibit foreign companies from spending to influence the outcome of a state ballot question. That includes a measure on the November ballot that would require the Legislature to approve the $1 billion powerline-expansion project spearheaded by Central Maine Power Co. and Hydro-Quebec, the energy company owned and operated by the Canadian province of Quebec.

The project has already been approved by both state and federal regulators.

Hydro-Quebec has already spent millions of dollars on digital, print and radio ads in Maine. And in 2020 its political action committee also paid a $35,000 fine to the Maine Ethics Commission for a late financial disclosure.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a sponsor of one of the bills, said he was shocked Maine didn't already have law prohibiting the influence of foreign governments in state ballot question campaigns. Maine already prohibits foreigners from contributing to the campaigns of candidates running for public office.

"This committee hears countless bills every session that aim to get money out of politics, yet the problem of non-Maine money in our referendum process is enormous," Bennett told lawmakers on the Legislature Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee during a virtual hearing on Monday. Bennett said his bill was specifically tailored to target only contributors who are owned or under the direct influence of a foreign government.

The New England Clean Energy Connect project would transmit 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity from the Canadian utility to the New England grid, and would be funded by Massachusetts ratepayers. The 145-mile-long transmission corridor would cut through about 53 miles of mostly-commercial forest owned or controlled by CMP in western Maine before following existing transmission corridors.

Opponents to the corridor say wilderness resources in Maine will be destroyed for the benefit of ratepayers in Massachusetts while supporters say the effort is needed to fight climate change by providing energy that's made without burning fossil fuels readily available throughout New England.

In August of 2020, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court blocked a ballot question initiative that sought to overturn a decision by Maine Public Utilities Commission permitting the project.

Maine Ethics Commission campaign finance records show that Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, a ballot question committee set up to oppose any initiatives to block the power line, spent $9.6 million between October 2019 and December of 2020. Another political action committee, Clean Energy Matters, fueled largely by donations from CMP and its parent Avangrid Service Company, part of the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, spent an additional $12.6 million to support the corridor. Combined, the PACs shattered the $10 million record for ballot question spending.

Supporters of the the bills noted repeatedly that the Canadian Parliament in 2018 passed a law prohibiting foreign entities from spending to influence elections. Maine's law against foreign spending on candidate campaigns does not address ballot question campaigns.

Although 26 other states allow citizen ballot initiatives, it is unclear how many expressly prohibit foreign spending on those campaigns. At least three states — North Dakota, New Hampshire and Montana — passed laws in 2017 and 2019 prohibiting campaign contributions and expenditures by foreign nationals.

Federal law also prohibits "contributions, donations, expenditures and disbursements solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals in connection with any election—federal, state or local." Again, the law doesn't speak specifically to ballot initiatives.

"As foreign interests cannot contribute money to the elections of lawmakers, they ought not be able to contribute money to elections to make laws," said Bennett, the Oxford Republican. "Why would we prohibit the indirect interference in policymaking by banning contributions by foreigners to candidates but not close the staggering loophole of direct interference when our statutes are being changed?"

Bennett's bill bans contributions from a corporate entity when a foreign government owns 10 percent or more of the company's stock. Hydro-Quebec is a crown company, fully owned by the province of Quebec.

Sophie Brochu, the president and CEO of Hydro-Quebec, told lawmakers her company is getting a bad rap in Maine and has spent money to provide voters with only facts about the project.

She said the powerline would not only provide Maine with discounted clean energy for 20 years and enough power for 70,000 homes, it was already employing more than 300 workers in its construction and that as many as 1,600 would ultimately be employed on the expansion.

Brochu said the legislation before the committee "seeks to bar us from presenting facts to the people of Maine and to exclude our voice while we are the ones who know the most about our energy."

But opponents to the project in Maine, including Elizabeth Caruso, the first selectman in the town of Caratunk, where the corridor will pass through, said Hydro-Quebec and CMP were not telling the truth about the project. Caruso said foreign governments especially should not be allowed to influence voters in Maine with "false" advertising and lobbying.

"This large foreign government corporation's ability to flood Maine with false advertising in order to change the perceptions of Maine voters is revolting and injurious at best," Caruso said. "Allowing foreign intervention in our democratic elections is anti-American, serving the interests and bank accounts of non-citizens at the expense of U.S. citizens."

The bills now before the committee are a continuation of legislation that was written in 2020 but left unfinished when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Legislature to adjourn quickly last March.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on the legislation again on Friday, as lawmakers look to combine the three bills that address the same topic into one bill before voting on a recommendation for the full Legislature to consider later this year.