Those for and against Question 3 on the November ballot worked to make their case Thursday, with supporters saying a utility takeover will save money in the long run and opponents warning of a long list of unknowns.
William Harwood, the Maine Public Advocate, sat between the two sides and offered information, but did not take a position.
Voters on Nov. 7 will be asked if they want to buy out Central Maine Power and Versant Power to create a new power company.
Supporters of the Pine Tree Power concept say the buyout will save consumers money over 30 years and improve reliability.
“We’ve seen in Maine that we’ve got some of the worst service all across the country,” said Al Cleveland, campaign manager for Pine Tree Power.
Opponents say if the measure passes, the issue will be tied up in courts for years and the cost of those legal bills will be paid by Pine Tree Power ratepayers.
“The risks to all of us far outweigh any potential benefits,” said Barbara Alexander of Maine Affordable Energy, the group representing CMP and Versant.
Harwood, whose office is charged with representing the interests of Maine utility customers, said his office could not come down on one side of the issue or the other.
“We frequently wish CMP and Versant would provide better service,” he said. “But as hard as we looked at this proposal, we can’t come to a conclusion that the Pine Tree proposal will improve service or service will deteriorate.”
Much of the forum focused on the initial cost to take over the companies by eminent domain. Opponents say it will cost $13 billion, while Cleveland said their estimates show the value of the companies is closer to $5 billion to $6 billion.
Ultimately, it will likely be up to a judge to decide.
“We don’t know what the purchase price of the utilities will be,” she said.
Former state Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) who represented opponents Maine Affordable Energy, said the cost issue should worry voters.
“I think what’s really scary is we just heard Al say we don’t know what it’s going to cost,” Warren said. “That’s really scary to me. We’re going to go to the ballot, we’re going to ask you all to vote but we don’t know what it’s going to cost.”
Last week, Gov. Janet Mills came out in opposition, largely because of the unknown cost, saying they are “proposing to mortgage the future of our children who are going to have to foot this bill years down the road.”
The forum follows the Wednesday endorsement of Question 3 by the Maine State Nurses Association, which linked the importance of reliable electricity to health care needs, such as machines that rely on power for those with medical conditions.
But Question 3 opponents responded by saying many other unions — including the IBEW and the AFL-CIO — are opposed to the takeover.
To bolster their argument, Cleveland said the new utility is projected to save consumers $9 billion over 30 years.
She said an elected board will negotiate the purchase price and because they will have access to low-interest bonds, the cost will be spread out over decades.
Harwood said it’s likely that rates for consumers will go up in the first four to five years while the takeover is being completed, but that long-term savings are possible.
He compared it to refinancing your home mortgage from a 9% interest rate to a 5% rate.
“That’s going to save you some real money over time,” he said. “That’s what they’re offering. It’s not easy to get there. There’s some real upfront investment.”