The signatures are in and the questions have been certified, so it’s official: Mainers will be making momentous decisions in November 2023 about whether to buy out its two largest electric utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant, for somewhere between $9 billion and $13.5 billion in borrowing.
Those are the range of estimates between backers of the “Our Power” referendum, and CMP, which is also proposing a separate question requiring specific voter approval for any such borrowing over $1 billion.
However you slice it, it’s a ton of money, far greater than Maine’s total public debt. The consumer cooperative with an elected board that would replace CMP and Versant management is also a novelty; nothing quite like it exists anywhere.
The votes will take place shortly after – or possibly still in the middle of – the conclusion to a legal fight over a previous utility referendum, which in 2021 shut down construction of a line from Hydro Quebec’s dams to Massachusetts following voter approval of Question 1.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled the referendum is likely unconstitutional, though we won’t know for sure until an April civil trial and the inevitable appeals.
If your head is already spinning, you’re not alone.
It’s frustrating that all these questions, with the interminable ad campaigns accompanying them, will not resolve the much larger dilemma facing the state, and nation: How to rapidly transition from a fossil-fueled economy to one powered by wind, solar, and existing hydroelectricity.
At best, the lengthy process of converting private utilities to a cooperative could be a major distraction from this larger mission, and changes essential to our long-term survival.
Is there an alternative? There just might be.
Buying out existing utilities and installing a cooperative would not add a single kilowatt to our electric supply, nor would it provide strong direction for where to build transmission lines and connect new sources.
Instead, those tasks are delegated to an overburdened Public Utilities Commission, which has been pressed into service to decide policy questions, not just perform its traditional regulatory role.
A public power authority has been a long-sought dream in Maine, and this may be the opportunity to finally get one up and running.
Rather than endless requests for proposals, where the PUC approves whatever the private sector choose to offer, Maine could build and own the key elements of its electric system, providing the framework for the renewables conversion it’s now trying to accomplish primarily through goal-setting.
And a public authority would not be hamstrung by the artificial separation between generation and distribution that forced the sale of CMP’s hydroelectric dams under the “deregulation” law passed in 1997 – assets we might well like to have back.
A Maine Public Power Authority would be a heavy lift to design and operate, but the key point is that it could start small and build upward – as several Canadian power authorities did decades ago. There’s no need for a multi-billion-dollar buyout.
Two Canadian public entities, ironically, figure in Maine’s referendum wars – Hydro Quebec and the City of Calgary, owner of Versant. Though targeted in Maine politics, they’re popular back home, because they carry out clear public purposes with public assets.
“Our Power” supporters like to contrast CMP and Versant with Maine’s municipal utilities, which do have lower rates – and much more compact service areas – while denouncing similar Canadian public ownership.
If there were ever a time for a vote on public power, it’s this year, when we may make decisions that will bind us for decades to come.
Under the initiative and referendum process, any bill the Legislature proposes concerning utility ownership would have to go to the ballot as a competing measure; no version can become law without achieving 50% support.
The last time the Legislature used this provision was in the “Ban Clearcutting” referendum of 1996, which ended badly when neither the original referendum nor the competing measure ultimately became law.
But this could be a much more compelling choice. Backers of the “Our Power” question are correct that public power authorities can offer many benefits to consumers.
Creating Maine’s own version within state government would be far less risky than the buyout, and far more likely to have early and rapid successes.
At the very least, it’s time for the Legislature and its Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee to study these questions, and see if a broader and better alternative can be devised.
Otherwise, we will soon be fighting another referendum war, in which there may be plenty of casualties, and few winners.
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. chief justice. He welcomes comment at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Rooks: An alternative to Maine's destructive referendum wars