AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to hold the state’s electricity utilities more accountable for poor performance won the support of the Maine Senate on Tuesday but fell short in the House.

The bill would establish key performance measures for electricity providers in areas ranging from reliability to customer relations and impose financial penalties for failing to meet those goals. It also would add whistleblower protections for employees and contractors who report problems with operations. And it would change the way utility companies plan grid upgrades.

The Senate advanced the bill with a 20-14 vote. But the House rejected three versions of the bill later Tuesday afternoon before voting 100-34 to table it. The proposal goes back to the Senate, but its odds of passing appear slim.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who is one of the leaders of the Our Power campaign to establish a consumer-owned utility, criticized the bill, saying that the report card showing a utility’s performance would be written by the companies themselves and would not be audited.

“What I fear most about the measures that we pass or consider in this body is accidentally doing more harm than good,” Berry said. “I fear that fake accountability can be worse than doing nothing.”

Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, standing, speaks Tuesday during debate on amendments to a bill she sponsored, L.D. 1995, “An Act To Ensure Transmission and Distribution Utility Accountability,” during the morning Senate session at the Maine State House in the Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Sen. Stacy Brenner, D-Scarborough, argued that the bill would result in accountability and better grid planning. She recalled the popularity of Central Maine Power’s ad campaign from the 1990s – “No line is safe to touch. Evah” – and how last year the company was ranked last in customer satisfaction by J.D. Power.

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“In the last few decades, Mainers have lost faith in the public utilities that serve the residents of Maine,” said Brenner, who supports a consumer-owned utility company. “We have before us today a much-needed bill to help provide accountability and a report card system for utilities, regardless of whether they are investor- or custumer-owned.”

Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said he co-sponsored the bill in good faith and with an open mind, but could not support it, fearing it would lead to increased costs for ratepayers.

While power companies could not recoup fines from ratepayers, any systemwide improvements to avoid future fines could be recouped, including those to accommodate the grid for more solar projects, he said.

“That is going to have a substantial impact on your constituents’ utility bill,” Stewart said, noting how Mainers already are struggling to pay their bills. “They are frustrated about the number at the bottom of their bill and they are looking to us to make sure it doesn’t get unnecessarily larger.”

The bill, aimed at the state’s two investor-owned utilities, Spanish-owned CMP and Canadian-owned Versant, drew extensive public comment at a public hearing before the Energy and Utilities Committee, which struggled to reach consensus and instead voted out three different versions of the bill.

The bill passed by the Senate would require quarterly report cards grading utilities’ ability to meet minimum standards for customer service, complaints, reliability and power restoration. It would impose a fine of $1 million or 10 percent of annual revenue for multiple failing report cards. Continued failure could trigger a forced sale to another power company or a consumer-owned utility.

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It also would add more protection for whistleblowers who report illegal or improper behavior by a utility, authorize the PUC to audit utilities’ financial information and require utilities to submit regular plans to address the impact of climate change on their infrastructure.

The Senate adopted the majority report, which was essentially the governor’s version with some changes, the largest of which is a requirement for integrated grid planning.

The Senate further amended the bill to require the PUC to establish different performance standards for companies with 50,000 or fewer customers and to consider input from stakeholders, such as Efficiency Maine and other experts, when establishing priorities for transition to a more “clean, affordable and reliable” electrical grid.

“This represents a critical step forward for accountability and protecting ratepayers as we move toward a modernized grid, powered by clean energy,” said Senate Democratic Leader Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic. “We need this approach to build the most cost-effective grid possible – a grid designed for Maine ratepayers, not utility shareholders.”

Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, believes the bill strikes the right balance because it’s being opposed by both existing utility companies and activists trying to establish a consumer-owned, public utility company through a statewide referendum.

“It’s like an unholy alliance between the two to kill this bill and to stop it from becoming law,” Lawrence said. “That’s why I know this is a good bill. That’s why I know it will bring accountability now.”

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Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, broke with Republican opposition to support the bill, while Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, and Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, broke with Democratic supporters to oppose it.

The bill faces further votes in the Legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn Wednesday.

Rep. Stanley Zeigler Jr., D-Montville, a member of the energy, utilities and technology committee, urged his colleagues to take action before leaving Augusta.

“We shouldn’t leave this chamber without this bill being passed,” Zeigler said. “We need to pass this bill. We will have oversight. We have worked this bill for many, many days and this is the way to go.”

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