Maine voters turned down an attempt on Tuesday to oust the state’s corporate-owned electric utilities and replace them with a non-profit backed by climate advocacy groups.
In one of several ballot initiatives, Maine voters rejected the proposed takeover of the two investor-owned utilities that distribute 97% of electricity in the state.
Voters opted for the status quo rather than a move that would have marked the first time a state with existing private utilities discarded them all at the same time. The proposal had called for dismantling Central Maine Power and Versant Power and creating a non-profit utility called Pine Tree Power to govern the grid.
Supporters had said there was little to lose because of the utilities’ poor performance.
Critics, though, argued there was no guarantee the non-profit utility would perform any better, while the move could spark lawsuits and buying out the existing utilities could cost as much as $13.5bn.
Willy Ritch, executive director of the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, which opposed the takeover, said Maine voters “rejected billions of dollars in debt and they rejected the risk and uncertainty that came with it”.
The referendum result in Maine is a blow for a growing movement across the US for publicly owned power. California, Michigan and New York are among the states with campaigns to move utilities out of private hands. Nebraska is the only state entirely supplied by consumer-owned power.
Some climate advocates insisted, however, that the referendum result in Maine would not derail the push for public power nationally.
“I don’t see it as a loss, I see it as the beginning of a real grassroots movement in Maine and nationwide,” said Ania Wright, a legislative and political strategist with Sierra Club Maine. “It could offer a model to inspire other states and municipalities, and set the tone for similar electoral action across the country.”
The vote in Maine came amid intense criticism of Central Maine Power over its slow response to storm-related power outages, a botched billing system rollout and perceived roadblocks to connecting renewable power projects to the grid, among other things.
“Our grassroots campaign has talked with thousands of Mainers – it is clear that CMP and Versant are hurting people,” said Al Cleveland, Pine Tree Power’s campaign manager, who also said the drive for a consumer-owned utility would continue.
“We went up against a handful of billionaires who do not even live in the state of Maine, and are able to profit and continue to increase rates,” said Candice Fortin, campaign manager at climate advocacy group 350.org.
The cost of utility payments was one of the issues during the run-up to the vote. Almost 94,000 households across the state have fallen behind on their bills as of May, according to Bangor Daily News, with CMP having sent 64,000 disconnection notices as of April. CMP gained $40.5m in profit in the second quarter of 2022, 23% more than the same time in the prior year, as reported by Maine Beacon.
In 2020, CMP was fined $10m for billing errors and customer service complaints, in what was the largest penalty issued by the Public Utilities Commission.
On Tuesday, a separate ballot question aimed at posing a hurdle to creation of a new utility was also approved. The referendum requires voter approval for borrowing topping $1bn, potentially restricting access to bonds that would be needed to buy out the existing utilities.
Mainers also voted to stop foreign government spending in local referendums, closing a loophole in federal election law that a Canadian utility giant exploited to protect its ventures in the state.
In a separate referendum voters decided to restore long-removed language about Maine’s obligations to Native American tribes to the printed versions of its constitution.
The state’s busy slate of referendums came a year before Maine will probably once again emerge as a battleground for a congressional seat and a presidential electoral vote in its more conservative second congressional district.
Associated Press contributed to this story