Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules that ballot initiative to reverse certification for transnational transmission line project is unconstitutional

On August 13, the Maine Supreme Court blocked from the ballot a citizen initiative designed to reverse a certificate required for a transnational transmission line project. The court ruled that the measure violated the “procedural prerequisites for a direct initiative” found in the Maine Constitution. According to the Supreme Judicial Court, the Maine Constitution “requires that a citizens’ initiative constitute legislative action,” and the ballot initiative “exceeds the scope of the people’s legislative powers…”

The ballot initiative would have required the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to reverse an order made on May 3, 2019, that provided the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission project with one of the certificates needed before construction could begin. The NECEC transmission project was designed to cross about 145 miles in Maine, from the state’s border with Quebec to Lewiston, and transmit around 1,200 megawatts from Hydro-Québec’s hydroelectric plants in Quebec to electric utilities in Massachusetts and Maine.

Avangrid Network, Inc., the parent firm of Central Maine Power, sued Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D) on May 12, 2020. Avangrid argued the ballot initiative was not legislative in nature and instead was designed to exercise executive and judicial power. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Avangrid, stating that the ballot initiative would interfere with PUC’s executive power to make a decision—something that legislation, including citizen-initiated legislation, cannot do according to the ruling. According to the Supreme Judicial Court, the ballot initiative was “executive in nature, not legislative,” because legislation can define an agency’s functions and authority but cannot “vacate and reverse a particular administrative decision.”

Avangrid and Central Maine Power provided $10.60 million to the campaign against the ballot initiative. H.Q. Energy Services (U.S.) Inc., a subsidiary of Hydro-Québec, provided an additional $6.33 million. On July 29, 2020, 25 current and former state legislators sent a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault and Hydro-Québec CEO Sophie Brochu regarding “Hydro-Quebec’s political campaign aimed at influencing the outcome of a citizen-initiated ballot measure this November.” Hydro-Québec is a corporation owned by the government of Quebec, which, according to the legislators, gave the Quebec government and residents a “financial interest in the outcome of a Maine election.” Serge Abergel, the director of external relations for Hydro-Québec, responded that Hydro-Québec should be allowed to provide information to voters after spending years to obtain permits.

The No CMP Corridor PAC, which was leading the campaign in support of the ballot initiative, had the support of Mainers for Local Power. Mainers for Local Power received $688,665 from Calpine Corp., which owned a natural gas-fired plant in Westbrook, Maine, and $750,756 from Vistra Energy Corp., which owned a natural gas-fired plant in Veazie, Maine.

Proponents of the ballot initiative collected 75,253 signatures for the ballot initiative between October 2019 and February 2020. On March 4, 2020, Dunlap announced that 69,714 of the submitted signatures were valid, surpassing the required minimum of 63,067.

The ballot initiative was one of two potential November 2020 citizen-initiated measures in Maine. The other citizen-initiated measure is a veto referendum to repeal ranked-choice voting for presidential elections. Secretary of State Dunlap announced that not enough signatures were valid for the veto referendum to appear on the ballot. Proponents of the veto referendum, however, are challenging Dunlap’s decision in Superior Court.

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