A bill that would prohibit companies owned by foreign governments from spending money to influence ballot-question campaigns in Maine advanced in the state Senate and appeared poised for final passage Tuesday.

The measure is aimed squarely at Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian company that has spent $10 million to build public support for a 145-mile electricity transmission line across western Maine built by Central Maine Power. The bill cleared the Senate, 23-11, after passing in the House of Representatives on a vote of 87-54.

Much like the $1 billion project itself, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, saw bipartisan support and opposition. Proponents spoke out against foreign influence in Maine political decisions, while opponents raised concerns about fairness and constitutional issues.

L.D. 194 is one of a pair of bills largely driven by the transmission line debate or consumer dissatisfaction with CMP.

On a vote of 76-64, the House also gave initial approval to L.D. 1708, backed by Bennett and Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, that seeks to create a consumer-owned power utility that would buy out CMP and Versant Power, which serves northern and eastern Maine.

The bill would replace the power companies with a publicly-owned utility with a board of directors elected by Maine voters. The consumer-owned utility bill still faced additional votes in the Senate and the House late Tuesday.

In a fiery speech ahead of the vote on the ballot-question bill, Bennett blasted not only the energy company owned by the province of Quebec but also supporters of the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line project.

“Over the last 17 months something rotten has happened in Maine,” Bennett said, pointing to the money given by Hydro-Quebec to a political action committee promoting the power line project. “This affront to our freedom occurred in plain sight and it needs to stop.”

Bennett also took aim at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenged a drive for a statewide referendum vote aimed at overturning the Public Utilities Commission’s approval of the project.

“Nothing speaks to the rottenness more than our own state chamber of commerce – which supposedly exists to help our own local businesses – using their political capital to shill for foreign governments.” Bennett said.

The state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the challenge to the petition drive, ruling that a “people’s veto” could only be applied to laws passed by the Legislature, and not actions taken by a regulatory agency like the PUC. A new ballot question, which will go to voters in November, seeks a law that would require legislative approval of any power line project over 50 miles long.

Bennett noted that the bill only targets companies owned by foreign governments. Any company with 10 percent foreign ownership or more would be prohibited from spending on ballot initiatives.

But opponents of the bill said it is treading on dangerous legal ground and could be overturned by the courts, based on free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the landmark Citizens United case. That U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 concluded that government could not limit a company’s right to free speech.

Beyond the constitutional issues, the state chamber has argued that the bill would severely hamstring the business community’s ability to advocate for itself and would repel business attraction and economic growth … “because what company would want to move operations to Maine if they would be silenced on a ballot question that could significantly and detrimentally impact their ability to maintain profitability here?” Gerald F. Petruccelli, an attorney representing the chamber, wrote in opposition to the legislation.

Opponents said that because the bill only targets foreign companies, it leaves the door open for U.S. companies, including large fossil fuel companies based in the southern U.S. who oppose the corridor, to spend freely.

Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said he was voting against Bennett’s bill because if it passes it won’t go into effect until early October, or 90 days after the Legislature adjourns this month. That means supporters of the project would have one of their largest advocates silenced just before the election in November.

“So at that point, we as a state would be saying that a significant party in this referendum question, that’s going to be impacted by its result, is going to be barred from communicating five weeks before the election is concluded,” Libby said.

The southern terminal for the power line project, which aims to bring up to 1,200 megawatts of power to the New England grid, largely for Massachusetts customers, is located in Libby’s home city and is likely to generate additional tax revenue for Lewiston.

Libby noted that energy companies in Florida and Texas were the top spenders among project opponents.

“Why are they so interested in that project to bring renewable energy down to Massachusetts?” he asked. “It can’t be for environmental reasons, it has to be for monetary reasons.”

He added that limiting the voice of a company trying to bring clean energy to the grid could backfire in the future, especially if another foreign company attempted to bring a green energy project to Maine.

The fate of the bill is uncertain, as Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, supported the powerline expansion in 2019 after negotiating a package of benefits to the state worth about $258 million over 40 years. The benefits are designed to lower electric bills, advance clean-energy efforts and fund other public projects.

Mills’ predecessor and likely Republican opponent in the 2022 election, former Gov. Paul LePage, also supported the power line expansion.

In Tuesday’s voting, Bennett’s bill gained support from nine of the Senate’s 12 Republicans while only five other Democrats joined Libby in voting against the measure. Still, that won’t be enough to reach the two-thirds margin, or 24 of the 35 votes in the Senate, needed to overturn a veto should Mills issue one.

The gap for a veto override is even bigger in the House. Only 87 of the 151 representatives voted for the measure, and 101 votes would be needed to override a veto.


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