To be sure, it’s hard to defend Central Maine Power lately — especially after receiving your first bill of 2019 and seeing the raise in the standard offer rates.

The company has been dealing with controversies largely of its own making that have shredded the public’s confidence in them. In recent years CMP has had problems with its billing system that it still hasn’t adequately explained. Then there was its terrible response to a massive windstorm that showed the fragility of its infrastructure.

Even as it has attempted to deal with these issues, the company hasn’t backed off its push to change the laws around solar-power generation to its benefit or plans to build a transmission line through pristine areas of western Maine.

So, it’s perfectly understandable that legislators would be taking a hard look at reining in the company; they’ve been in the news a lot lately, and for the most part, it hasn’t been for good reasons. A company that was once widely trusted by the Mainers it served is now the target of frequent ire. Moreover, CMP’s responses to these various controversies have done little to assuage its critics in any way, shape or form. There’s no doubt there’s bipartisan interest in considering legislative fixes this session — and those should receive serious consideration and debate.

The proposal recently unveiled by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, to create a consumer-owned utility called the Maine Power Delivery Authority is a step too far, however — even with all of CMP’s recent problems.

Berry’s bill would force both CMP and Emera Maine to sell all of their assets to the newly created MPDA, which would finance the purchase with bonds. The new organization would be similar in structure to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Even with all of those caveats, however, this legislation could be considered a nationalization (at the state level) of Maine’s two largest utilities — or at the very least, a step in that direction.

The very notion of forcing a private corporation to sell its assets to another entity through eminent domain — the centerpiece of this scheme — is controversial and ill-advised. Even when eminent domain is invoked fairly to build government-owned facilities that truly do benefit the public at large, such as highways or schools, it can lead to emotional and costly legal fights that drag out for years and divide communities.

When it is invoked unjustly, that goes doubly so. And in this case, it seems as if the primary justification is simply dissatisfaction with the performance of a private corporation.

While there’s cause for dissatisfaction with Central Maine Power of late, this isn’t a justifiable or a proportional response. Also questionable is including in the deal Emera Maine, which hasn’t had nearly the same problems lately.

Any large private company that operates a utility isn’t quite like other private companies, of course. CMP and Emera Maine are given a de-facto monopoly over the delivery of electricity in the state, and that means they deserve a little more regulation and scrutiny than, say, Starbucks. That regulatory infrastructure is already in place in the form of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. If the PUC feels empowered to act both through legislation and its appointed members, there is much more it could do to control CMP and reduce electricity rates for all Mainers.

It’s also worth remembering that while the Maine Turnpike Authority may seem to be a successful model worthy of emulation, that entity has had its own share of problems.

The longtime former director of the Maine Turnpike Authority served more than a year in prison for stealing almost a quarter-million dollars in public funds. Although the MTA has an independent board of directors that is supposed to hire and oversee the executive director, the board did little to exercise that authority over him for decades. Fortunately, that changed after a lengthy investigation, but one wonders exactly what sort of checks and balances would be included over the Maine Power Delivery Authority.

While there’s no doubt that we need to reduce the costs of electricity in Maine and increase scrutiny of our public utilities, an outright takeover isn’t the answer.

Instead, we ought to consider legislation that makes it harder for them to raise rates, increases transparency, and forces them — not ratepayers — to pick up the tab when they make mistakes.

That’s a far better approach than a takeover, and one that could gain bipartisan support.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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