The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: Billion-dollar bafflement

Is there a more devious entity than Central Maine Power Co.?

Well, Dr. Oz comes to mind. But here in Maine, CMP pretty much has a monopoly not only on delivering electricity but also on engaging in practices that constantly call into question its credibility.

Massive billing errors. Worst customer-satisfaction ratings in the nation. Outrageous claims about how the power corridor it’s still trying to build through the western Maine forest will somehow benefit the state it’s clear-cutting.

CMP has earned its reputation for being plugged into the misinformation grid. So it should come as no surprise that CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, is behind a new ballot question committee called the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition.

Contrary to its name, MAEC has nothing to do with keeping your monthly electric bill manageable. Instead, Avangrid has invested nearly $2 million in a twisted effort to blunt the effects of a likely referendum to have the state purchase the assets of CMP and the smaller Versant Power and convert them into a not-for-profit, publicly owned utility.

Organizers are collecting signatures for the public power vote, which will likely show up on the ballot next year. Given CMP’s poor reputation for service and reliability, there’s a good chance the measure will be approved by the voters. Avangrid executives have looked at their polling numbers and realize they have little chance of defeating the measure, particularly after they lost last month’s vote to stop the corridor by a near landslide.

Most people aren’t going to buy whatever arguments the corporate types raise against public power. Faced with impending defeat, CMP’s parent has decided the best way to preserve its lucrative franchise may be to put a competing question on the ballot – one that essentially guts the whole concept of buying out the utility.

MAEC is laying the groundwork for a referendum that would limit the amount the state could borrow for the buyout to $1 billion unless voters approve a higher amount. Since the buyout of CMP and Versant is estimated to cost anywhere from $4 billion (supporters’ wild guess) to nearly $14 billion (CMP’s wishful thinking), this initiative would leave public-power backers well short of the money needed to make their dream a reality.

A single billion would barely pay the salaries of Avangrid executives, let alone purchase a whole company.

Asking the voters to approve several billion in borrowing to fund the CMP takeover would be a tough sell. Avangrid would have a much easier time defeating such a ballot measure than it would with the current question of whether the much-despised CMP should be abolished and replaced by a consumer-owned company.

To date, MAEC has kept a low profile, and even its website gives little hint of what it’s really up to. Instead, it blathers on about what a bad idea a state takeover would be.

“If the state government takes control of Maine’s grid, we’ll be leaving decisions about management of power delivery up to a board of elected politicians,” it warns. “Do you really want the same people in charge of fixing our roads responsible for restoring our power after a storm?”

Is none of the above an option?

In spite of pretending to be concerned with the current referendum, MAE has filed extensive legal documents with the Maine secretary of state laying the groundwork for its billion-dollar-limit initiative. It’s hired staff, including Willy Ritch, former political operative for Democratic 1st Congressional District Rep. Chellie Pingree and now the frontman for the anti-public power crowd.

Since its formation last August, MAEC has been spending Avangrid’s money on what it refers to in its finance reports as “Voter Outreach Services.” That could be code for lining up volunteer campaign coordinators and signature gatherers. There seems to be some indication MAEC minions are knocking on doors assessing voter reaction to the idea, but they don’t yet have a formal ballot question, so they aren’t collecting signatures.

But with most of that $2 million from Avangrid still available, it may not be much longer before CMP’s latest devious maneuver moves into high gear.

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