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Let voters decide public power question

Gordon L. Weil is a former Maine commissioner of business regulation and director of the Office of Energy Resources and was the state’s first public advocate. He lives in Harpswell. This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald on June 21, 2021 and is republished here by permission of the author.

If you oppose a proposed policy but don’t want your position to seem unreasonable, just say it needs more study.

“To delay is to deny.” That old saying works perfectly. Defeat the proposal now by saying more study is required, and there’s a decent chance it will never be heard of again.

That’s just what the opponents of converting Central Maine Power and Versant into Pine Tree Power, a consumer-owned utility, are doing now in opposing the bill, now stalled in the Senate, which would send the issue to the voters. If Gov. Janet Mills simply blocks the referendum in favor of more study, it may never be heard of again.

Why does it need to be given a closer look before the people can decide? Isn’t the proper time for a closer look and public debate during the campaign leading up to the vote?

The issue arises because Maine has electric rates among the highest in the country plus the least reliable service. This requires little more study, as numbers available from the U.S. Department of Energy speak for themselves.

But can people really run their own electric utility? The electric utilities in Los Angeles, the entire state of Nebraska and much of Massachusetts are all consumer-owned to say nothing of Kennebunk, Madison, Houlton and other places right here in Maine. All of them are run by professionals operating under public authorities elected by the people.

CMP has an explanation why its service is so far below Nebraska’s – more trees. Maine has them and the Cornhuskers don’t. Except Maine has been covered by trees longer than CMP has existed. It should have figured out how to manage around them. That conclusion requires no more study.

What we know about the foreign owners of CMP and Versant is that their prime concern must be the welfare of the shareholders. That’s the law. They don’t show decent responsibility to Mainers by high rates and poor service. We have experience; no more study is needed.

It requires public choice, not more study, to decide if foreign owners or Maine customers ought to control their electric service, especially after the present owners have produced such poor results.

What’s depressing about the opposition to public power, which has a long history in the U.S., is that the utilities and their friends distrust the voters. They claim more study is needed before the people can decide if they want their utility run by elected Maine “politicians” rather than foreign investors.

At a time when democracy itself is under challenge, the opponents of public power offer fear of popular control. The bill requires only a public vote; it does not decide the outcome of that vote. But its opponents do not want to even give the people a chance.

I have been involved in public power campaigns. The utilities usually win. Why? Because they can spend almost unlimited corporate money in a political campaign and the supporters of public power, municipal governments or individual customers, lack their resources. Is their opposition now a matter of trying to save campaign money or do the utilities know that service has become so bad they might lose?

Let’s have a debate on the merits of the two alternatives – investor ownership or customer ownership. It’s ripe for debate now. If facts are disputed, the place to do that is during a campaign, not by caving in to utilities and their friends who do not trust the voters.

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