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Get ready, get set for bruising referendum campaigns in 2023


By the time you get your spring tires put on, the waiting room of your local automotive shop might be decorated with political signage.

You might not think who is allowed to repair a vehicle could be a political discussion, but it will be one of the four likely ideological skirmishes waged on the airwaves and roadside signs as Maine gears up for a referendum-heavy year.

Unlike 2021’s bruising campaign over whether Mainers should block Central Maine Power’s hydropower transmission line from Canada from coming through the Kennebec Valley, multiple ballot questions will be up for debate in 2023.

A question asking if Mainers want to establish a consumer-owned utility, and buy out CMP and Versant Power, has been approved for the November 2023 ballot. Opponents have a counter referendum aiming to hobble the consumer referendum by making government bonding over $1 billion subject to voter approval. That one is also likely to make the ballot.

Competing for attention with those two high-profile fights will be an effort to prohibit companies with foreign ownership from spending in referendum campaigns, which has been certified, and a debate on who should get access to telemetric data from your vehicle for repairs, which is likely to make the ballot.

If all four are voted on in November, it will be the most questions on the ballot since 2016, according to state records.

Trends and fights in other states over similar measures indicate next year’s battles, if they do make the ballot, will cost millions and flood the airwaves with commercials. Here is what you need to know about the 2023 referendums.

The right to repair: local shops versus consumer privacy.

The concept of “right to repair” has been around for years, but one of its first major battles took place in Massachusetts a decade ago. A right to repair coalition – a group of automotive aftermarket companies that create, distribute and sell vehicle parts or perform vehicle services — brought forward a ballot measure to require motor vehicle manufacturers to grant access to vehicle diagnostic and repair information to independent repair shops.

That referendum passed with 88 percent of the vote in Massachusetts. And car manufacturers, rather than fight the same battle in 50 states, chose instead to create a memorandum of understanding between themselves and the aftermarket industry to make that information available nationwide.

But Timothy Winkeler, the president and CEO of VIP Tires & Services and the lead proponent for Maine Right to Repair, said the memorandum does not cover the wireless diagnostic information common in newer cars. The Massachusetts right to repair campaign took the issue to the ballot box again in 2020 and won, and Winkeler hopes Maine will be the second state to make this information available to independent repair shops.

“This is about consumer choice,” he said. “It’s about your ability to choose who repairs your car.”

Winkeler said there has not been much strategizing on how to message around the referendum, but imagines once it is certified by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, which he expects in January, posters will start popping up in repair and parts shops advocating for the measure.

It is certain to meet resistance from the car manufacturing industry. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, one of the main opponents of the Massachusetts referendum, sent out a memo outlining its arguments against the proposed Maine measure. It accuses the aftermarket industry of going for a “data grab” that would allow it to create targeted ads toward car owners. It also said the measure is unnecessary and could open vehicles up to cybersecurity risks.

The alliance’s resistance was so strong that automakers have been fighting it in court for two years.

The Maine campaign could be expensive: The Massachusetts campaign finance website shows a collective $51.6 million on the referendum in 2020, with opposition slightly outspending support. At the time it was projected to be the single most expensive ballot initiative in the state’s history, the Boston Globe reported.

A movement to block referendum spending by corporations with foreign backing has no organized resistance — yet.

Another referendum also will tackle an issue gaining national traction, but has roots in one of Maine’s most expensive ballot initiatives.

Avangrid, CMP’s parent company and subsidiary of Spain-based company Iberdrola, fueled most of the $17 million spent in the first campaign to block CMP’s hydropower corridor before it was quashed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. They and Hydro-Quebec also led opposition spending for the 2021 campaign. NextEra, Calpine and Vistra — competing energy companies — lead support spending.

Voters will likely be asked to consider a measure that would ban foreign governments — like Quebec — from spending on Maine ballot initiatives. But supporters of the referendum will tell you the measure has little to do with the corridor fight and more about who should have political speech in Maine elections.

“I think Maine people think their elections are for Mainers and for Americans to be involved in,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a leading member of the ballot action committee advocating for the referendum, Protect Maine Elections.

Bennett said the referendum is aimed at closing a Maine campaign finance loophole that prevents companies with foreign ownership from spending in candidate campaigns but not ballot initiatives. It is also an attempt to reduce the dark money — spent by certain nonprofit issue groups who are not required to disclose their donors — in elections that make it more difficult for voters to know who is influencing the messaging. 

Other states, including CaliforniaMaryland and Colorado, have similar laws. And Maine nearly passed the initiative in 2021 through the Legislature, but it was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

This campaign has been relatively quiet: Campaign finance files show Protect Maine Elections has spent about $467,000, with the lion’s share going to personnel costs. Its biggest contributor is American Promise, a nonprofit advocating for more regulation of political spending. No committees have been formed to oppose the referendum.

There may not be organized resistance, but powerful interests voiced opposition to the reform when proponents tried to pass a similar measure through the Legislature. Chief among them were Versant Power, which is owned by a Canadian corporation, Hydro-Quebec, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Forest Products Council.

Many of those entities will be major players in those referendums. Whether they spend their energy on this one is yet to be determined.

Pat Strauch, the executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said his organization still remembers the battles over competing clear-cutting referendums in the 1990s, when environmentalists and forest products groups fought over how to harvest timber in the North Woods. Neither option passed.

Strauch said he does not plan to be a lead opponent on the campaign finance question yet, but noted the council’s membership is made up of several entities with foreign ownership who are investing in the industry. How concerned they are about the referendum’s chances may spur in their involvement, he said.

“We want to make sure they have the ability to protect their business interests,” he said.

Mark Brewer, a political scientist professor at University of Maine, said those interests may not win out against a message of keeping outside political money out of politics, especially when some of those interests are not particularly popular.

“If you were going to ask people if foreign money should influence elections, they’d say no,” he said.

A consumer-owned utility would change Maine’s energy landscape. Opponents want to defeat it — or at least put up roadblocks to the sale.

As Mainers continue to see electricity rates increase and their frustration with their utilities continue, a question of whether to establish a consumer-owned utility will likely be the most expensive campaign this season.

Opponents and supporters of creating a consumer-owned utility formed in early 2021, when former Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, introduced a bill to make that happen in the Legislature. The bill passed through both chambers but was vetoed by Mills. The spending kicked up in earnest last fall, according to campaign finance documents.

Since then, $341,976 has been spent to support and $6.9 million to oppose the creation of the Pine Tree Power Company. Opposition spending is overwhelmingly coming from Avangrid and Enmax, Versant’s owner.

Also in play is a counter ballot measure that would require voter approval for any government bonding over $1 billion. Signatures for that were submitted in late December.

But Willy Ritch, who helms No Blank Checks — a committee dedicated to promoting that question — said that referendum is not nearly as high a priority as advocating against the consumer-owned utility through Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, the Avangrid-funded committee Ritch also leads. No opposition has been formed against that initiative.

“It’s just common sense,” Ritch said. “Mainers should be able to have the final say on how much money they’re going into debt for.”

The consumer-owned utility question is certainly high stakes: A yes vote would create a nonprofit run by a board of elected officials who would seek financing to buy out CMP and Versant. The measure would likely be challenged by those companies and be tied up in lawsuits for years.

That uncertainty could create challenges for energy investments in the long run, opponents say. It has brought together the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, several unions and mayors in opposition. 

BJ McCollister, a spokesperson for Enmax’s opposition committee, Maine Energy Progress, said the coalition will be a strong asset going into the next year. But the price tag associated with the buyout is also a main argument.

“There’s countless reasons to oppose this takeover, but we’re very focused on the fact that it’s a $13.5 billion takeover,” he said.

Supporters have argued the utilities are worth a quarter of that figure. They also say the No Blank Checks referendum will not affect Pine Tree Power because it will seek a different kind of bonding targeted in the other measure.

But cost is an important part of their argument, too — Andrew Blunt, the executive director of Our Power, said having a nonprofit-run utility would remove the profit motivations regular utilities have as part of their operating needs and keep customers’ money within the state. He also said having a board with public meetings will keep Pine Tree Power more transparent and accountable to customers about their cost, and allow for better investment in electrical infrastructure.

And although the high cost of heating oil and electricity is hurting Mainers — a rate hike for both Versant and CMP went into effect this month — Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, said the economic climate drives that message home.

“The high energy costs we’re experiencing are happening now, not down the road,” she said.

How much the economic situation changes in the next year could drastically affect voters’ view on the referendum, Brewer said. It could be enough, compounded with people’s continuing frustration with Maine’s big utilities, to cinch a victory. But the complexity of the question — its legislation is 15 pages long — could also work against them in a referendum campaign.

As for whether money will make a difference, Brewer said the lopsided spending in the CMP referendum shows ad buys can only go so far in winning public support.

“Simply outspending your opponent doesn’t always mean you’re going to win,” he said. “If you’re facing a situation where each side is adequately funded to do what they need to do, it doesn’t matter who is spending more at the end of the day.”



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