Consumer power advocates are running out of time for the 2022 ballot
Jan. 18 – The campaign promoting a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine says it plans to make an announcement on Wednesday amid evidence supporters have been unable to garner enough of signatures for a question on the ballot in November.
Stephanie Clifford, campaign manager for Our Power, the coalition behind the effort, declined on Tuesday to comment on growing signs that signature-collecting efforts had failed. The group will address the issue of collecting signatures and make an announcement on its campaign finances on Wednesday, Clifford said.
“We’re not going to comment on that,” she told the Portland Press Herald when asked if the ballot initiative would be pushed back to 2023.
But at least three signs point to the likelihood that the group will not be able to muster the roughly 63,000 signatures required for 2022.
First, the deadline for submitting petitions to city clerks for certification is Friday, which is 10 days before the final filing deadline with the Maine Secretary of State.
Monday was Our Power’s “internal campaign deadline” to collect signatures from its canvassers. Clifford sent an email this month urging them to act, with this caveat: “But remember, if we don’t hit the 63,000 mark by the end of this month, the signatures will remain valid for another year, so we will definitely continue to collect!”
Second, one of the coalition members, the Democratic Socialists of America, also sent a note to organizers regarding its Maine Public Power Project, a side effort to collect signatures. This email indicates that the group has halted its efforts this month and is looking to 2023.
“As we begin the new year, we are suspending solicitation until February,” the memo reads. “We all deserve a rejuvenating break for a few weeks, and we hope this rest will help build steam in the months to come – we will definitely need as much energy and human power as possible in 2022. CMP does not won’t make this fight easy for us.”
Representatives for Maine Public Power did not respond to an interview request emailed Tuesday.
Third, two lawmakers who have been leading proponents of consumer-owned power declined in a recent Bangor Daily News article to comment on whether they had collected enough signatures for 2022. Representative Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham and Senator Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, indicated they would be okay with 2023.
Neither lawmaker could be reached for comment on Tuesday.
These feelings are at odds with the sense of urgency that has characterized the consumer power movement.
Advocates have been working since 2019 on efforts to replace Maine’s two investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Versant Power, with a consumer-owned nonprofit. With the proposed name Pine Tree Power, the new utility would be run by a board elected by the Mainers and run by a private sector operator. It would issue debt against future earnings to buy the assets of CMP and Versant.
Pine Tree Power would be an antidote to the high costs and reliability issues plaguing CMP and Versant, proponents say. They began collecting signatures last summer after Governor Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have asked a similar referendum question. It was the second time such a bill had failed to make it out of the Legislative Assembly.
But CMP and Versant are fighting the effort, which they call a scheme to seize the state’s power grid in a government takeover. They warn the fight will be stuck in court for years and taxpayers will ultimately have to pay off more than $13 billion in debt, a figure disputed by supporters as too high.
Through a political action committee called Maine Affordable Energy, utilities and their business and union allies have spent big on convincing residents that the consumer-owned power plan is a wasteful and expensive idea. . Year-end reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission show the group spent more than $2.9 million in its attempt to reject the proposal. Avangrid Management Co., a subsidiary of CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, is the main donor.
Meanwhile, Maine Affordable Energy collected signatures for a competing ballot initiative. It would take voter approval before any government entity could take on more than $1 billion in debt.
The Mainers are worried about the cost to their electricity bills of buying CMP and Versant, said Willy Ritch, the group’s campaign manager. They are also skeptical about the potential for future savings, he added.
“For a lot of people, it feels like an experiment,” Ritch said.
The impact of delaying the Pine Tree Power ballot initiative until 2023 is mixed, Ritch said. Turnout is expected to be higher in November for the midterm elections, which will include hotly contested races for governor and members of Congress. That won’t be the case in 2023, Ritch noted, favoring the engagement of residents motivated by the issue of consumer-owned electricity.
An extra year will also give residents more time to educate themselves on the proposal, but whether that benefits opponents or supporters is debatable.
NEXT UNKNOWN STEP
The failure to collect enough signatures this year amounts to a reality check of Our Power’s enthusiasm last November, following the 2021 election.
Voters at the time were weighing in on a ballot question to kill CMP’s transmission line project in western Maine, the New England Clean Energy Connect. This question won hands down, in part due to a general mistrust and aversion to the CMP among some residents. Now the case is before the courts. Proponents of consumer-owned utilities hoped to capitalize on this animosity when soliciting signatures outside polling stations. The first reaction was encouraging.
“Our signature collection results have exceeded expectations,” Clifford, the campaign manager, said in a Nov. 2 press release. “The Mainers are excited about this proposal because we know we can do better. It’s time to replace CMP and Versant with a local consumer-owned utility that’s lower cost, more reliable, and watches over us, not over foreign shareholders.
What happens next may depend to some extent on Our Power’s announcement on Wednesday.
Asked about Maine Affordable Energy’s signature-raising campaign, Ritch declined to share numbers, but said he was on track to meet his goal by summer. If successful, the group could also aim for the 2023 ballot.