Local legal experts on Maine’s Pine Tree Power (PTP) referendum brought an electric debate to a live audience in Kresge Auditorium on Monday.
The moderated voter forum addressing Question 3 on the November ballot was organized by the Government and Legal Studies department and Midcoast Senior College.
Currently, Maine’s utilities are run by Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant, which are private, for-profit corporations. If approved, Question 3 would create the Pine Tree Power company, a nonprofit, consumer-owned utility provider. Invited to debate the ballot measure were two panelists: Jim Cohen, a partner at Verrill Dana which represents CMP, and John Brautigam, a chair and legal expert for OurPower, the organization responsible for the PTP initiative.
“On the one hand, we know that CMP is not popular, and that Mainers have had lots of complaints about service and about billing. So, I could see people using this as an opportunity to register those complaints and vote ‘yes,’” Professor of Government Michael Franz, who co-organized and hosted Monday’s debate, said. “On the other hand, the money that’s been spent to talk about the campaign is heavily based on the vote ‘no.’”
The goal of the forum was to give potential voters a chance to learn more about the current proposal from both sides.
“We sometimes get distracted, in many political debates, with the flash or the sound bites that are often offered by candidates or advocates of certain positions,” Franz said. “And so as a result, voters aren’t necessarily getting a balanced set of information.”
In an effort to address these biases objectively, Franz invited moderators Tux Turkel, formerly of the Portland Press Herald, and Lori Valigra of the Bangor Daily News. Both have journalism backgrounds covering Maine energy, utility and environmental issues.
Attendees appreciated the forum’s two-sided approach to teaching the intricacies of the PTP referendum.
“I think most of this audience here is interested to learn more about the complexities of this issue … because it is a much broader, a much bigger investment,” Doug Bates ’66, an attendee at the forum, said.
Following five minute opening presentations from Brautigam and Cohen, Brautigam fielded a question about the disparate financial figures produced by PTP compared to CMP—a central theme of the debate.
Brautigam first cited the 2020 London Economics Institute evaluation claiming that ratepayers would pay an increased $118 million over the decade following the switch but would ultimately save over $236 million over 30 years. Brautigam said that PTP instead used Maine-based economist Dr. Richard Silkman’s analysis of utility savings which claims Mainers will save over $9.1 billion over the following three decades—a figure translating to $367 in savings per household per year.
“You take the $9.1 billion and divide it by the number of households—the number of electric meters in the state—and by the number of years that are applied,” Brautigam explained.
Cohen countered that, without knowing exactly what PTP would cost the state, there is no way to calculate the projected savings for consumers. With litigation fees and utility costs sure to mount over the next 10 years, Cohen thinks PTP advocates underestimate the costs needed to get the initiative running.
To estimate the increased costs of purchasing the assets of utility businesses over a period of time due to inflation and other factors, Cohen’s data used a “value multiplier” of two and found that the cost of the utility would be closer to $13.5 billion, which he argued would accrue hundreds of millions in debt at the cost of the taxpayer.
Another major point of debate was how consumer-owned utilities actually function in practice. For Cohen, this means a government takeover of utilities. Cohen cited that PTP is referred to as a “body politic and corporate” in the referendum and would be run by elected officials.
“It is governed by elected officials who are elected statewide, not just by the customers of Pine Tree Power but also by the customers of Eastern Maine Electric and all the consumer owned [utilities]. Our U.S. Supreme Court said ‘entities that are governed by elected officials [who are] elected at large are government agencies,’” Cohen said.
Cohen explained that each district would elect one of the twelve officials that would serve on the PTP board and that those elected would serve for six years.
Brautigam started his rebuttal by emphasizing that PTP would be independent of the Maine Legislature and would only be subject to oversight from the Maine Public Utilities Commission. He then reemphasized that the current leadership of CMP is elected by shareholders who are often completely unconnected to Maine.
“I feel a lot more comfortable having the chance to elect or reelect or hold accountable the officials here. The meetings will be open to the public. The records will be subject to freedom of information access. Their elections will be subject to the Clean Elections law in the state of Maine, so people can run with different funding and not be beholden to any special interests,” Brautigam said.
A major point of discussion during the question and answer segment of the debate was the environmental impact of PTP. Brautigam claimed that PTP development would allow for more electrification of heating and vehicle charging, whose inclusion would aid long-term sustainability efforts. Cohen rebutted that it was impossible to know if PTP would have positive environmental impact and that CMP has also advocated for environmental issues.
“Central Maine Power came forward and proposed rates helpful to electric vehicles,” Cohen said.
After an information-packed discussion and an engaging question and answer session, audience members came away more educated about Maine’s utilities but were still concerned about the long-term implications of either a yes or a no vote.
“The issues are still a big challenge because there’s so much you don’t know about the future,” Bates said. “And that applies for either one of those people [Brautigam and Cohen].”