Politics & Other Mistakes: Unready kilowatt

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There are few bunglers more incompetent than the ones who run Central Maine Power Co.

One of the only exceptions is the bunglers who run state government.

CMP executives are tone-deaf, money-grubbing, project-botching bullies with the political sense of browntail moths.

State legislators and bureaucrats are much the same, except their political aptitudes more closely resemble that of a tomato plant.

A bill in the Legislature that calls for substituting a slightly less capable assortment of bumbling managerial disasters (the pols) for the current crop of boobs (CMP management) doesn’t constitute an upgrade.

But even if it did, the measure authorizing the state to buy CMP’s assets (and those of the smaller Versant Power) and set up a publicly owned electric company would still be a stupid idea.

It probably doesn’t make any difference to you whether you get your juice from The Three Stooges or the denizens of Animal House, but you certainly care about how much those kilowatts are costing you. CMP’s service may be spotty, its billing system may be operated by hackers from Kyrgyzstan, and its management may have the personal charisma of a bucket truck, but it has one significant advantage over a utility run by politicians.

CMP isn’t swamped by billions of dollars of debt. A public power company would be.

The exact amount of that red ink is in dispute. CMP and Versant say purchasing all their assets would cost ratepayers something north of $13 billion. The pols pushing this proposal put the figure at $5 billion. Both sides are probably lying.

It doesn’t matter who’s being less dishonest. Either way, the bottom line is monthly power bills will be going up to pay the principal and interest costs on the bonds that would be needed to allow the government to seize all those substations, lines, and poles.

Supporters of the takeover admit that monthly charges might edge higher in the short term, but claim they would drop significantly in the future. Also, there’ll be flying cars, quick service at the DMV, and free beer.

There are at least two reasons to doubt those claims.

First, the new public company would be controlled by a board of directors composed of elected officials. Instead of the current CMP overseers – fat-cat business types with selfish agendas – you’d have fat-cat political types with selfish agendas dictated by special interests. That’s because the majority of the board would be chosen by voters who know next to nothing about running a utility. So, they’d rely on TV and internet advertising to advise them on their choices. Big contributors – and dark money – would dominate the elections.

Remember when I said the only thing worse than current CMP management is current state management? You’d be trading the former for the latter.

The board would also have a minority of unelected advisory members, whose experience in running an electric company would consist of owning that property when they play Monopoly. Former CMP executives will be lining up for those slots.

Which brings us to the second problem with this scheme: The board won’t actually be running the new entity. That job will go to folks who know how to do all the stuff you have to do to keep the lights on. In other words, the new public operation will be hiring management and labor from a pool largely composed of current employees of CMP, Versant, and similar odious operations.

What you’ll have is a company using the same (or nearly indistinguishable) workers, overseen by the same (or nearly indistinguishable) managers overseen by a board clogged with political toadies.

I haven’t mentioned the billions Maine is going to have to spend in the next 30 years to deal with a growing clean-energy grid and relentless climate change. Because those costs will hit us no matter who’s in charge of the charge.

The one certainty: Your bill is going up.

The real question is whether you want to send the check to the current crop of weasels (owned by an international conglomerate) or a new set of weasels (owned by big-money special interests).

The only good choice may be to turn out the lights.

Shock me by emailing [email protected].

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