Over the past month, there has been much debate in Augusta over whether Maine should forcibly seize the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power and establish a new governmental entity dubbed “Pine Tree Power” to take ownership of Maine’s electric grid.

As local mayors, we believe this proposal would hurt local government and our constituents, and we urge Maine lawmakers to reject LD 1708 when they return to the State House later this month.

This is an extremely complicated proposal that, if passed, would cost billions of dollars and be one of the most significant pieces of legislation to emerge from Augusta in decades. Legislation of this nature requires careful deliberation and study.

LD 1708 was not made available to the public until May 17 of this year. There was a public hearing three days later, and the topic was discussed by the Legislature’s Utilities Committee for a total of 90 minutes on June 1 before being voted out of committee.

Last summer, the Utilities Committee voted to study the concept further, but that study never proceeded due to the adjournment of the Legislature due to the pandemic. So, we ask the same question asked recently by Gov. Janet Mills: why the rush now?

CMP and Versant Power are the two largest property taxpayers in Maine by a wide margin. Combined, the two companies contribute about $90 million in property taxes to municipalities throughout the state.

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For many communities, the revenue contributions from CMP are significant. In 2019, Lewiston received $4,671,288; Auburn, $1,044,715; and Westbrook, $1,018,414. The city of Portland received $2,463,474; Augusta, $4,136,774; Gorham, $1,739,901; Cumberland, $972,409; and Saco, $935,772.

Throughout Maine, property taxes from CMP and Versant support essential municipal services for Maine people.

Put simply, when CMP and Versant make property tax payments, other local taxpayers pay less. Take away those payments, and all other taxpayers will pay more.

Which brings us to our key point.

If LD 1708 were to pass, this new consumer-owned utility — governed by elected officials — would be deemed a “quasi-governmental” entity (like a local water district), exempt from property taxes. That would leave our residents and businesses to pay more.

Supporters of LD 1708 tell us we have nothing to fear, that they have this problem solved. The Legislature has a solution, and we should trust it.

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However, it took nearly two decades for the Legislature to finally pay 55% of local school costs, something voters passed in 2003. Likewise, when state budgets got tight, the Legislature scaled back its promise to share sales taxes with local municipalities through municipal revenue sharing. And over a decade ago, the state exempted business equipment from local property taxes, costing local property taxpayers millions per year.

While progress gets made periodically, including in this year’s state budget, the long-term track record of the Maine Legislature on municipal property tax relief has been less than stellar.

Supporters of LD 1708 say “not to worry” because the bill states that Pine Tree Power would have to make “payments in lieu of taxes,” as if the authority were a private company. The problem is, what the Legislature giveth, the Legislature can taketh away — just like it has over the years with school funding and revenue sharing.

The moment state voters complain that their electric rates are too high, how long will it be before the Legislature starts chipping away at these promises to keep making local tax payments?

Another “solution” was floated recently: change the label of the “in lieu” payments so they are called “property taxes” instead. But we strongly feel that regardless of the label, local tax payments required by the Legislature can be taken away, at any time, through a simple majority vote.

LD 1708 raises critically important questions that demand solutions. However, a takeover of CMP and Versant is not the best solution for Maine. That’s why we strenuously urge legislators to reject LD 1708.

Mark Cayer is mayor of Lewiston, Jason Levesque is mayor of Auburn, Michael Foley is mayor of Westbrook, and David Rollins is mayor of Augusta.


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