Governor Janet Mills explains her opposition to a consumer-owned utility for Maine

Mills also fears the change could slow Maine’s conversion from fossil fuels as an electricity...
Mills also fears the change could slow Maine’s conversion from fossil fuels as an electricity source, particularly natural gas, to clean renewables.(wabi)
Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 6:55 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Maine (WMTW) - Maine Governor Janet Mills is among the opponents of Question 3 on November’s statewide ballot – the referendum that proposes creating a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power through a forced buyout of Central Maine Power and Versant, which supply electricity to 97% of the state’s homes and businesses.

Mills sat down with Maine’s Total Coverage in her cabinet room at the State House on Wednesday to explain her position – the idea is too good to be true, too costly, and too risky.

“It’s a huge gamble,” Mills said, with her primary worry the cost of the hostile takeover -- billions of dollars in borrowed money.

Mills said, “The exact figure, I don’t think anybody really knows, but that isn’t the question. Even if it’s only $9 billion, as some of the proponents say, that’s a lot of money -- plus interest to pay it back. We’re mortgaging the futures of our grandchildren now, if we’re talking about that kind of money.”

Mills warned lower electricity rates cannot be guaranteed, as utility policy is complex.

“The question on the ballot is a one-liner, sounds very simple. The bill itself that people are asked to vote one is 35 pages of single-spaced small print law,” Mills said. “There may be ways to do this kind of thing, but this isn’t the way.”

In contrast to Mills, Lucy Hochshartner, Deputy Campaign Manager of Our Power, for Question 3, asserted in an interview ratepayers would see savings under a nonprofit they own.

“It’s not about that initial cost, but about the way that we’re able to move from what is essentially a very high rent that we pay to CMP and Versant, their CEOs, their foreign shareholders, move instead to a low-cost mortgage,” Hochschartner said.

Our Power predicts Pine Tree Power would save the average household $30 a month on its electricity bill, or $367 a year.

Hochschartner said, “We truly have some of the worst utilities in the nation with CMP and Versant. We have the most frequent outages. We have some of the worst customer satisfaction anywhere in the country, and they are not providing service at an affordable rate.”

On Wednesday, Question 3 received its first union endorsement -- from the Maine State Nurses Association.

Nurses gathered on Portland’s Western Promenade, outside Maine Medical Center, told reporters they expect Pine Tree Power to be more reliable and affordable, which is necessary for the health and safety of Maine people.

Amy Strum, an RN and the union steward at Maine Med, said more than 10% of CMP and Versant customers can’t afford their electricity bills, as 94,000 customers received disconnection notices this year.

Strum said, “How are Mainers supposed to afford housing, food, healthcare, and medicine, when they can’t even afford to keep their lights on or their refrigerators running at home.”

However, the local unions opposed to Question 3 include the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the Maine Building Trades Council, a construction union.

Those naysaying unions believe members employed by Pine Tree Power could be reclassified as a public sector union and lose their right to strike.

“They do have that wrong,” Hochschartner said. “Workers will keep their jobs and keep their union status with Pine Tree Power.”

With Question 3 calling for seven members of the 13-member Pine Tree Power board to be elected, Gov. Mills foresees more bureaucracy and partisanship.

Mills said, “There’s no guarantee they’ll have any qualifications. No guarantee they’ll have any expertise whatsoever in utility law. No guarantee that they won’t be funded by oil and gas, nuclear, and fossil fuel companies, who have something at stake.”

Mills also fears the change could slow Maine’s conversion from fossil fuels as an electricity source, particularly natural gas, to clean renewables.

“This bill does nothing about that – nothing,” Mills said. “This bill, I’m afraid, will derail that progress and set us back. This bill will invite years and years of controversy and litigation.”

The governor said no state has gone with a statewide consumer-owned utility, and she doesn’t want Maine to be the first.

Instead, she pointed to a law she signed two years ago that empowers Maine’s Public Utilities Commission to impose performance-based standards and auditing.

Mills said, “To me, that’s the way to go – make them more accountable, more responsible to the ratepayers.”