AUGUSTA, Maine — A referendum bid aimed at killing Central Maine Power’s controversial $1 billion corridor was virtually killed on Thursday by the state’s high court, which deemed the effort unconstitutional in a decision that will have yearslong political implications.
The decision all but ends the most expensive campaign over a Maine referendum ever. It may forever limit the power of Mainers to legislate at the ballot box. Previous initiatives have been subject to constitutional challenges, but proponents were allowed to pass them and later lobby for adjustments in the Legislature.
On Thursday, five justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court agreed with CMP parent Avangrid that the question was unconstitutional, ordering a lower court to issue a judgment to that effect ordering Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to remove the question from the ballot. Opponents can appeal the ruling on other grounds, but the path is narrow.
Jon Breed, the executive director of Clean Energy Matters, a CMP-funded political committee that has spent at least $16.7 million to oppose the referendum, called the decision “a major victory for Maine.”
Supporters of the question, however, said they would find a way. Former state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, who leads a group opposed to the corridor, said his side could still harness the strong opposition to the project to bring a law through the State House, or put up another signature-gathering effort for next year.
“We’re not giving up,” he said, adding that the ruling effectively disenfranchised the voters who had signed petitions for the question. “This is just the beginning.”
Avangrid filed the lawsuit in May against Dunlap seeking to stop his office from putting the question to kill the corridor proposal on the November ballot, arguing that it violates a separation of powers provision in the Maine Constitution.
A lower-court judge ruled against the utility in June, agreeing with Dunlap’s assertion that while the referendum may be unconstitutional, it was not necessary to determine that ahead of an election in which the question may pass or not. A state attorney, however, told the court Dunlap would remove the question if it told him to do so.Justices noted that the court had never prejudged the constitutionality of a question. But they said the CMP referendum question differed from others finessed in the legislative process because it concerned whether the question — and not the underlying issue — was valid at all.
The court also ruled that while the Legislature — and voters by extension — could rein in or expand the authority of utility regulators, they cannot pass a law telling the executive branch to overturn one of their past decisions.
Bruce Mohl Aug 13, 2020
THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT of Maine on Thursday yanked a referendum question off the November ballot that could have derailed a Massachusetts proposal to import hydro-electricity from Quebec using a power line running from the Canadian border to Lewiston, Maine.
The high court, overturning a lower court’s decision, held that the referendum question was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be allowed on the ballot because it sought to overturn a key regulatory approval of the power line granted by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The decision doesn’t end the fight over the power line, but it knocks out one of the major challenges to it. The ballot question, as of several weeks ago, had already become the most expensive in Maine history, with the opposing sides spending tens of millions of dollars appealing to voters. Opponents of the project said their polling indicated the ballot question was likely to pass.
Massachusetts has largely stayed out of the fight, but electric customers in the Bay State set it in motion. Three Massachusetts utilities, acting on behalf of their customers at the Baker administration’s request, agreed to pay nearly $1 billion to the Quebec-owned utility Hydro-Quebec and the Maine utility Central Maine Power to import hydro-electricity into the New England region.
An earlier bid to import the hydro-electricity using a power line through New Hampshire was shot down by regulatory agencies there.
The goal of the hydro-electricity project is to increase the supply of clean energy coming into the region and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Gas-fired power plants in Maine, who saw the power line as a threat to their business, joined forces with environmentalists and sport fishing groups to oppose the power line. Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power poured millions of dollars into a campaign supporting the power line, as well as a legal challenge to the ballot question itself.
Their legal challenge said the referendum question was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. In its opinion, the court likened the ballot question to a legislative action initiated by voters instead of lawmakers. The court ruled that the ballot question exceeded the scope of the people’s legislative powers because it sought to overturn an executive branch regulatory decision.
“The initiative at issue here is not legislative in nature because its purpose and effect is to dictate the [Public Utilities] Commission’s exercise of its quasi-judicial executive-agency function in a particular proceeding,” the court’s opinion said. “The resolve would interfere with and vitiate the commission’s fact-finding and adjudicatory function – an executive power conferred on the Commission by the Legislature.”
The decision stunned opponents.
“We are digesting the ruling of the Maine Supreme Court and weighing our options for going forward,” said Adam Cote, an attorney representing opponents of the power line.
Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the environmental group was extremely disappointed...................................
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