AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted Monday to uphold Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill seeking a forced buyout of the state’s two largest electric utilities, ending legislative debate, but not the political momentum around the issue.
Lawmakers also sustained Mills’ vetoes of measures dealing with prescription drugs, food sovereignty, membership of a forestry advisory board and the arbitration process following bargaining with public sector employee unions. With Monday’s additional votes, Mills was 21-0 for bills she vetoed during the 2021 legislative session.
The consumer-owned utility bill, L.D. 1708, would have dramatically reshaped Maine’s electricity landscape by forcing Central Maine Power and Versant Power to sell their assets to a newly created Pine Tree Power Company. The measure grew out of ratepayer frustration over prolonged storm-related outages, billing problems and rising electricity rates in Maine.
The 68-65 vote in the House was well short of the two-thirds margin needed to override Mills’ veto. However, supporters of creating a large, consumer-owned utility in Maine say they will work to send the issue directly to voters next year via a statewide referendum.
“While politicians in Augusta have failed to let Maine ratepayers weigh in on this important question this year, we will make sure that voters’ voices are heard in 2022,” said Stephanie Clifford, campaign manager for Our Power, one of the groups advocating for the consumer-owned utility bill.
Mills vetoed the high-profile and controversial bill last week, claiming the proposal to create a consumer-owned utility from the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power was “hastily drafted and hastily amended.” In her veto letter, Mills raised concerns about the proposed company’s board of directors as well as the costs of protracted litigation and delayed investment in the grid during what she called a “hostile takeover of the state’s utilities.”
But Mills also called the recent performance of Maine’s investor-owned utilities “abysmal” and suggested she was open to “alternative proposals,” including potentially strengthening the enforcement tools available to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Bill sponsor Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he agreed with Mills’ letter on one key point: that the legislation is “arguably one of the most consequential ever to be considered by the Legislature – a bill the impact of which would touch the lives of every Maine citizen in serious, substantial and fundamental ways.”
But Berry said a “consumer-owned business model is far better suited to the complex and urgent needs of our energy future,” and will give ratepayers more control. Berry said L.D. 1708 would “free our people from energy captivity” under the foreign companies that own CMP and Versant.
“Our monopoly grid will soon power every aspect of our lives,” Berry said in a floor speech. “It is the lifeline of our shared energy future. It is possibly the most critical infrastructure of tomorrow, essential to our security and our survival.”
Opponents, meanwhile, suggested the bill would create a dangerous precedent by forcing two private companies to sell billions of dollars in assets to the Pine Tree Power Company.
“If we don’t like way our cable companies are run, are we going to have state-owned cable?” asked Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn. “Are we going to have state-owned newspapers if we don’t like what they write? Are we going to have state-owned grocery stores? This is something that Russia does, China does, Venezuela does. Is that the direction we want to head?”
The fight over a consumer-owned utility sprang from broader frustration – much of it directed at CMP, the state’s largest utility – over electricity rates and extended power outages in Maine. Additionally, CMP is embroiled in a high-profile, multimillion dollar public relations and regulatory battle over the New England Clean Energy Connect project to build a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line from Quebec through western Maine.
The outcome of the House vote on Mills’ veto of the consumer-owned utility was widely expected given the relatively narrow margins with which L.D. 1708 passed the House and Senate. Not long after the House vote, Our Power said they are ready to begin collecting the signatures needed to place a consumer-owned utility question on the statewide ballot in 2022.
So far this legislative session, Mills has vetoed 21 bills, none of which were overturned by lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
During some of the final votes of the special legislative session, the Senate voted largely along party lines to uphold Mills’ vetoes of two bills that sought to reduce prescription drug costs. The first bill, L.D. 675, would impose penalties on drug manufacturers for “unsupported price increases,” while the second, L.D. 1117, would prohibit excessive prices for generic and off-patent prescription drugs.
Mills questioned whether the bills would survive constitutional challenges during the lawsuits promised by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry.
One of the leading proponents of the bills, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, disagreed with Mills’ statements that the bills were risky because they would invite potentially costly lawsuits from “big pharma.” Jackson has said the bills were drafted to avoid the constitutional challenges that have killed measures in other states.
During a Senate floor speech, Jackson said he fully expected that the bills would be challenged in court but he pointed out that Maine is set to receive $20 million from Purdue Pharma as part of national settlement over the company’s marketing of prescription opioids.
“We have $20 million that is coming from lawsuits against Big Pharma,” Jackson said. “I think we have the money right there to try to defend these bills and at least send a signal across the state of Maine that we do care about the obscene costs of prescription drugs. And we do care about our constituents being able to get low-cost medications.”
But the 20-14 votes on both bills fell short of the two-thirds majorities needed to override the governor’s vetoes.
Mills has vetoed a total of 31 bills during her 2 1/2 years as governor, all during a time of Democratic control of the Legislature. In comparison, her predecessor in the Blaine House and likely opponent in 2022, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, vetoed more than 600 bills during his eight years in office.