AUGUSTA — Secretary of State Shenna Bellows announced Nov. 30 the petitions for “An Act To Create the Pine Tree Power Company, a Nonprofit, Customer-owned Utility” had enough valid signatures to move forward as a citizen’s initiative.

“The initiative to create a consumer-owned utility will now go to the Legislature… The Legislature can choose to enact the bill as written or to send it forward to a statewide vote in November 2023,” Bellows’ press release stated.

The goal of the group pushing this initiative, “Our Power,” is to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a nonprofit, Maine-owned utility.

Our Power’s Executive Director Andrew Blunt issued a statement after the announcement saying, “With rates through the roof and a hard winter ahead, Mainers are more ready than ever for a local power company that lowers our bills instead of making wealthy corporations richer.”

Willy Ritch, a spokesman for opponents of the plan calling themselves Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, argues the takeover will cost Mainers $13 billion and involve a lengthy legal fight over the plan to take the companies over via eminent domain.

“The proponents of Pine Tree Power call it ‘consumer owned’ and ‘non profit,’” Ritch said. “…It is not accurate to call it consumer-owned. Some say it would be like the Maine Turnpike Authority. Does anyone think of the Maine Turnpike as a ‘consumer-owned’ highway? I know it’s tempting to call it that—but it’s just not accurate.”

He goes on to argue, “And in terms of profit — the referendum requires that a for-profit company to be hired to run the grid. So, it’s absolutely untrue to say that somehow their plan takes profit out of the equation and it’s really misleading to call it non-profit.”

Blunt said in August that with a consumer-owned utility, the people of Maine would have more of a say in how the utility is run and its decision-making process would be transparent.

Opponents of the plan have collected signatures for a referendum they are calling “No Blank Checks.” “This referendum would require voter approval of any new government debt of over $1 billion,” Ritch said. Those petitions have not yet been turned in, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Legislature convenes

Maine’s 131st Legislature convened Wednesday, Dec. 7.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, made history as the first Black speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, was named House Minority Leader.

Sen. Troy D. Jackson, was re-elected President of the Senate. Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, is the Republican Minority Leader.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows was re-elected to another two-year term by the incoming members of the Legislature.

“I am humbled and honored to have the opportunity to continue serving the people of Maine as Secretary of State,” Bellows said in a press release. “My promise is to be steadfast in my commitment to strengthen and protect democracy and to continue to work hard to modernize our technology in order to provide exceptional customer service across our Bureaus.”

The Legislature got off to a rough start with Senate Republicans blocking Gov. Mills’ proposed Emergency Winter Heating Relief Plan, which would have given $450 checks to most Maine taxpayers. While the Democrats have control of both houses, they do not have the super majority needed to push through the two-thirds vote needed to pass emergency legislation.

The issue did not die there, however. Mills issued a statement Friday, Dec. 16, in response to Jackson and Talbot Ross temporarily appointing an Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee for the purpose of holding a public hearing on the proposed Winter Emergency Energy Relief Plan.

“I thank President Jackson and House Speaker Talbot Ross for appointing a temporary committee to advance our emergency energy relief bill. I know that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike in the Legislature are committed to addressing this serious issue in a significant and timely way, and I am hopeful that this bipartisan move will provide us with a path forward to enacting this bill and delivering help immediately.”

Mills also announced her executive action to deliver additional heating aid to low-income, older Maine people. “The Maine Department of Health and Human Services last night provided one-time payments of $500 to approximately 13,000 households that include low-income Maine people aged 65 or older to help them pay for home heating costs.”

Other major issues before this Legislature will include “An act to address Maine’s housing crisis,” which will go to the Legislature’s new Joint Select Committee on Housing.

There is a growing demand in the state for paid family leave of up to 12 weeks of paid time off for taking care of relatives or new babies. This may result in a ballot initiative for November 2023. Maine People’s Alliance and Maine Women’s Lobby are gathering signatures for petitions, according to the Portland Press Herald. Last year the Legislature passed a bill to create a commission to study the issue.

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