What the clues from 1914 to 2021 have to offer on the possible fate of Pine Tree Power.

This fall’s elections are a full house: Four Constitutional amendments and as many Citizen Initiatives. Not since 1978 have we been offered so many of the former, not since 2016 the latter.

The measure that’s the biggest draw will be the eighth time since 1914 when a referendum puts the state’s major private electric utility companies in the spotlight. So far, CMP and its public utility allies have met with mixed results. They’ve won four, lost two and there’s one where how utilities line up was not all that clear. Here’s a quick look at what the past may have to say about CMP’s pending rendezvous with the momentous Question 3 referendum.

1914: The Referendum on whether to create a Public Utilities Commission: The outset of World War I in Europe also was a landmark skirmish in Maine. This was a People’s Veto referendum over creation of the original PUC. Power companies – along with railroads – were among the biggest stakeholders though the alignment for and against was a bit muddled. Supporters in any event came out ahead 67,368 to 37,008.

1929: The Referendum on banning the export of Maine power: CMP was center stage of this one. This was a bill the legislature sent out to referendum on whether a 1909 law banning the export of hydro electric power generated in Maine should be repealed.

In the vanguard of those favoring repeal was Chicago industrialist Samuel Insull, then the owner of CMP. Insull’s empire which also controlled some of the state’s leading banks and had interlocking relationships with many of the state’s daily papers saturated the state with double page newspaper ads and multiple mailings.


His side lost, however, 54,070 to 64,044. Credited with overcoming Insull’s juggernaut was Portland Evening News editor Ernest Gruening. A turning point in the campaign was a debate between Gruening and CMP President Walter Wyman. In it, Wyman denied that his side’s massive advertising was funded by rate payers.

When pressed by Gruening to give the true source, Wyman asserted that the money came from a deal Insull’s company made in Texas. The revelation, according to Gruening’s memoir, Many Battles, “disclosed that a vast sum was being transferred from elsewhere to capture a Maine election.“

It was fatal to Insull’s cause with a Maine mindset distrustful of outside influences. It would not, however, be the last time when the existence of vast expenditures originating from out of state coffers, whether in the multiple casino votes from 2003 to 2017, or in the 2021 CMP corridor vote – would be an issue in a Maine referendum election.

Gruening himself eventually wound up winning election to the US Senate from Alaska and during the 1960’s made a name as one of the leading Congressional opponents of the Viet Nam War.

Eventually, CMP gained the upper hand when in 1955 the legislature – spurned on by federal court decisions that questioned on commerce clause grounds the constitutionality of the restriction – repealed the 1909 law Gruening had successfully helped keep on the books.

1973: Public Power I: This was a plan with close parallels to this year’s vote. With the election occurring during the 1973-74 energy crisis, voters had reason to be disaffected with the private power establishment. Nevertheless, sixty-one percent voted against that year‘s bid to overthrow it, 151,480 to 95,645.


Championing the public power cause was Aroostook State Senator Peter Kelley. The one time Caribou High and Harvard basketball standout – now a retired attorney – is still at age 82 a robust persona. Kelley’s views remain substantially the same as they did when he mustered the 33-thousand signatures necessary to put public power before the voters for the first time a half century ago and become its leading advocate.

Though Kelley’s plan differed from this year’s Pine Tree Power measure in that the governing board would be appointed by the governor rather than be elected, Kelley supports this year’s referendum. When asked by this columnist in a phone interview a few days ago what advice he had to offer this year’s proponents, Kelley replied, “Get a quarter of a million and put it into TV and advertising.”

Kelley lamented that as with his own 1973 campaign public power advocates are so stymied with lack of campaign financing that they are not able to get their message out to voters. “The public is not getting exposed to the positive things” that the proposal has to offer. “It’s unfair.”

The scales this year are in one respect at least in theory more significantly tipped against public power advocates than they might have been in 1973 because there’s no longer an FCC mandated Fairness Doctrine.

Then – and until its repeal in the Reagan Administration in 1987 – the rule required TV and radio licensees to provide a forum for interest groups who might not otherwise be able to do advertising. By that standard, public power advocates such as Kelley were required to be afforded the opportunity to present their on air views.

Though the doctrine did not require literal parity with those who could afford paid broadcast advertising it still allowed them a somewhat more meaningful access than is sometimes the case in today’s less regulated media environment.


1980: Nuclear Power I: On the ballot here was an initiative to close down CMP’s Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset. The No’s and CMP the winner this time as the shut down vote lost, 233,198 to 161,181, a 59 to 41 percent margin.

1981: A proposal that foreshadows a prominent feature of this year’s Pine Tree Referendum called for the popular election of the PUC itself. Though the Pine Tree plan would not go this far, its provision that the new company be governed by a board made up primarily of popularly elected members is taking a page from the 1981 plan spearheaded by Former State Senator and Consumer Advocate Bruce Reeves. CMP won this one too, 144,647 to 90,333, 62 percent to 38.

1982: Nuclear Power II: A second proposal to close down Maine Yankee gained a bit more traction here but still as in 1980 went down to defeat, 256,124 to 201,617, 56 to 44 percent.

2021: The Corridor: CMP lost this battle 59 percent to 41 percent. The outcome of a Cumberland County jury verdict this spring that ruled the vote came too late in the hydro power line construction schedule to stand in the way of its completion may mean that it had not yet lost that war.

2023: Public Power II: The greater access major utilities have to campaign funding is again a central characteristic though if Maine’s past voting patterns are any indication such an advantage has not always been a guarantor of success.

What will be the verdict this time? The outcome of this year’s referendum and for that matter nearly all referenda are more difficult to predict than candidate elections. That’s because there are seldom any specific party identifications to which to anchor the result. In candidate elections most voters ordinarily retain an allegiance to the nominees of their own parties. Such an identification does not as often occur in referenda voting.


Surprises thus will more likely occur when outcomes are announced for citizen initiatives and constitutional amendments than for public offices. This will make the results suspenseful. The imperative for getting out to vote is that much greater in this, a year in which our ballots are visited by so many of them.

You decide.


Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at pmills@myfairpoint.net

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