Years-long campaign for consumer-owned utility defeated after deluge of opposition spending

“What we saw today is that the utilities have continued to spend money on our elections rather than our service, and that’s the story,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager for Pine Tree Power.

By: - November 8, 2023 4:10 am

Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager for Pine Tree Power, speaks to reporters after it was announced that voters rejected Question 3. (Photo by Jim Neuger / Maine Morning Star)

A referendum to replace Central Maine Power and Versant with a consumer-owned utility was voted down Tuesday after a deluge of advertisements and spending against the measure, ending a multi-year, nationally-watched campaign that would have dramatically altered Maine’s energy future.

The referendum, known as Question 3, would have set in motion a process for a newly-formed consumer owned utility — the Pine Tree Power Company — to buy out CMP and Versant and provide electricity to most of Maine. The ballot measure was rejected by a vote of 68% to 32%, according to the Bangor Daily News, with 41.95% of votes counted as of 10:45 p.m.

The utility companies and the groups financed by CMP and Versant’s parent companies to oppose Question 3 celebrated the results Tuesday.

“With this referendum behind us, we are turning the page. As we look forward, we must continue to modernize our grid to support Maine’s climate change goals, connect new renewable resources, and electrify our communities,” Jonathan Breed, spokesperson for CMP, said.

“Question 3 presented itself as a simple solution to very complex issues, and voters weren’t willing to take a chance on something as important as our state’s electrical grid,” said BJ McCollister, campaign manager for Maine Energy Progress, which opposed Question 3.

After the results were announced, however, leaders of Pine Tree Power, the campaign that spearheaded Question 3, struck a defiant tone. Despite the rejection of the consumer-owned utility referendum, they said the issues with Maine’s unpopular investor-owned utilities remain.

“What we saw today is that the utilities have continued to spend money on our elections rather than our service, and that’s the story,” said Lucy Hochschartner, deputy campaign manager for Pine Tree Power, at an election night party at Arcadia in Portland. “The story is that even when thousands of Mainers were asking for better service, they were failed once again by CMP and Versant.”

Throughout its campaign, Pine Tree Power faced a severe money deficit, as it was outraised by groups connected to CMP and Versant by about 40 to 1. Over the course of multiple years, ballot question committees funded overwhelmingly by CMP and Versant’s parent companies took in nearly $40 million — spending about $37.6 million — while Pine Tree Power raised a little over $1 million. Using that money, those utility-backed groups unleashed a barrage of TV and digital ads arguing that Question 3 represented a risky and expensive gamble for Maine.

Pine Tree Power didn’t have the funds to match those groups on the airwaves and instead relied on an extensive canvassing effort in which a network of volunteers fanned out across the state to have one-on-one conversations with voters about why a consumer-owned utility was the right path forward. 

During a speech Tuesday after the election was called, Pine Tree Power campaign manager Al Cleveland said they still believe a consumer-owned model is the best way forward. Cleveland also thanked those who dedicated their time and energy to the campaign and blasted CMP and Versant for their poor service.

“I’m feeling so thankful and I’m also feeling angry,” Cleveland said. “I’m feeling angry that our utilities are going to continue overcharging us and going to continue disconnecting the most marginalized among us.”

“But what gives me hope, though, is that we collectively have the solutions and we proved in this campaign that we can educate and bring along thousands of Mainers to join us,” Cleveland added.

Campaign messaging focused on CMP, Versant unpopularity 

Along with the conversations it had at doors with voters, Pine Tree Power banked on the unpopularity of CMP and Versant to buoy their campaign — but that wasn’t ultimately enough to convince Mainers to shift away from those companies in favor of a different utility model.

Many people in the state do, however, still have significant issues with CMP, which is owned by the Spanish multinational company Iberdrola, and Versant, whose parent company is solely owned by the city of Calgary in Canada. Both companies have ranked at the bottom of utility customer satisfaction for years running. In addition, under those companies’ stewardship, Maine has had some of the lengthiest and most frequent periods without power in the nation while also paying high rates that some people can’t afford.

Pine Tree Power argued during the campaign that as a consumer-owned utility, it would have operated in a much different way than CMP and Versant, which collectively posted $187 million in profit last year. Because the organization would have been a nonprofit, it wouldn’t have needed to make money for shareholders and could have borrowed at lower interest rates, which the campaign said would have saved Mainers money and allowed the utility to better invest in updating the grid and transitioning to renewable energy.

That environmental aspect was particularly important to many proponents, who believed moving to Pine Tree Power would have hastened the necessary shift to clean energy.

For all of those reasons, then-state Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat from Bowdoinham, introduced a bill in the Maine Legislature in 2019 to replace CMP and Versant with a consumer-owned utility. That first measure was unsuccessful, but similar legislation in 2021 that would have put a referendum on the ballot in November 2022 was approved by lawmakers. However, that bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, who also opposed Question 3.

The veto forced the Pine Tree Power campaign to gather the signatures needed to put the policy on the ballot this year.

Along with Question 3, Mainers also considered the directly-related Question 1 on Tuesday, which was put forward by CMP’s parent company Avangrid as an attempted tripwire for Question 3. Question 1 was passed by voters 65% to 35%.

That referendum asked voters whether they want to “bar some quasi-governmental entities and all consumer-owned electric utilities from taking on more than $1 billion in debt unless they get statewide voter approval,” with proponents of the measure aiming to essentially force the Question 3 campaign to get further voter approval, specifically for the cost of acquiring CMP and Versant.

Election night event

At the Question 3 election night party at Arcadia — at which around 50 people gathered — backers of the referendum said it was important to celebrate what the campaign had done together.

“We’ve been working on this for years, I’ve been working on this for years, and there’s a lot of people I haven’t seen and so I think a lot of it is camaraderie,” said Matt Cannon, state conservation and energy director of the Sierra Club Maine.

“This is a nice way to end it either way,” Cannon added prior to the race being called.

Bill Dunn, one of the original petitioners for Question 3, said Mainers can do better than the poor service provided by CMP and Versant. He noted that Question 3 was the culmination of years of work to achieve the vision of a more reliable, consumer-focused power company.

“I’m proud of the effort we’ve put in. We put in a lot of time,” he said. “And maybe we educated the public a little bit.”

He added that with Question 2 passing, which bans foreign electioneering in referendums, Pine Tree Power might have a better shot at passing its referendum in the future without millions in international spending pouring in against the ballot measure.

Question 2, which prohibits companies with 5% or more foreign government ownership from donating to future referendum races, was approved overwhelmingly by an 86.5% to 13.5% margin.

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Evan Popp, Maine Morning Star
Evan Popp, Maine Morning Star

Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College. He joins Maine Morning Star following three years at Maine Beacon writing about statewide politics. Before that, he worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.