Unpacking the Sausage: Power failure

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If you want to understand how political power flows in Maine, it’s hard to imagine a better illustration than the recent fight over how electrical power will flow.  

Put aside any partisan leanings for a minute. Let’s just focus on the mind-boggling levels of waste and anti-democratic political maneuvering around the New England Clean Energy Connect, also known as the CMP Corridor.

Bre KidmanIn March 2021, citizens placed an initiative to stop the NECEC on the November ballot. To promote both support for and opposition to the referendum, various stakeholders spent upwards of $90 million. That $90 million went to obnoxious TV commercials, fistfuls of junk mail, yard signs, and every other kind of political advertising imaginable. The voters spoke decisively, with 59 percent voting against the corridor. 

The Supreme Judicial Court has, in its recent decision on the matter, rendered all of that – $90 million and the will of more than 243,000 Maine voters – completely inert.

To provide a scale for the amount of money essentially reduced to toilet paper, I’d like to share some comparisons:

• That $90 million is about $18 million less than the state’s total annual expenditure on the Department of Environmental Protection.

• It’s 30 times what we spend on the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices. 

• It’s more than four times what the state spends on the Public Utilities Commission.

• It’s about $15 million more than the state spends on the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.  

• It’s more than $30 million more than the total 2021-2022 budget for the Maine State Housing Authority.

Suffice it to say, the money dropped on this election could have left Mainers in need feeling flush instead of getting flushed. Still, it’s no match for the $450 million NECEC spent on the project between January and November of 2021. 

The Supreme Judicial Court took that expenditure as enough evidence to remand the case for a trial to decide whether NECEC spent this astronomical sum in good faith that the project would be allowed to continue, despite the fact that it had not yet acquired all the required permits for completion. If the trial court determines the expenditure was substantial and in good faith, the citizens’ initiative will not block the NECEC as intended.

The court also noted that NECEC is still facing court proceedings about several other necessary permits. This did not disturb the justices’ assessment that there was substantial evidence NECEC poured money into the project in good faith that it would not be stopped, because the section of the project at issue was covered by a valid permit that was not then subject to appeal or further judicial review. Never mind that the point of the citizens’ initiative was to create another layer of review for the process.

The court didn’t address whether the evidence of NECEC’s “good faith” extended to its consideration of whether it was wise to spend nearly half a billion dollars rushing ahead on a project when they had good reason to believe citizens would challenge it on the November ballot.

I can think of no clearer way for the Supreme Judicial Court to tell the voting public to eat shit. Essentially, if a corporation spends more money building and propagandizing a project than anyone spends trying to stop it, the court says the state can’t possibly stop the corporation because throwing money at a hotly contested and not-fully permitted project creates vested property rights.

It doesn’t matter if citizens collect thousands of signatures and win a landslide election trying to stop the corporation by giving elected legislators oversight on decisions made by unelected bureaucrats. As long as the corporation dumps enough money in, its right to expect to build unimpeded is more constitutionally protected than the people’s right to expect their votes will matter.

Everyone knows the Constitution is about subverting the will of the public in favor of protecting corporations’ rights to throw their money around like a wrecking ball, right? That’s how democracy is supposed to work, isn’t it?

This isn’t the first time I’ve said this and it won’t be the last, but how come the only thing Maine’s top-level politicians and judges agree on is the electric companies having limitless power?

Not to mention, nearly one in five residents of the state – not just registered voters, but the whole state – voted against the measure. If not by voting, how exactly do our interests become vested? Does anyone know where our power comes from?

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].