The debate over Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project has raged for more than three years, long enough to make the arguments for and against it seem repetitive and stale.
However, the battle remains eminently consequential — and not just for the energy companies that stand to profit or lose money because of it.
Those companies, including CMP, have combined to spend more than $32 million attempting to shape Mainers’ views of the 145-mile corridor in advance of a November referendum. That includes $7 million in just the past three months, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
Those figures don’t even capture the totality of the spending, because some of it occurred before last year’s law-court-scuttled referendum was authorized by the secretary of state, and also because campaign finance spending is separate from legislative and federal lobbying efforts, which have also been significant.
Nevertheless, that spending is under the microscope because there are some who believe they’ve found a way to stop it, or at least minimize its impact on the November referendum, and more broadly, in future elections.
They include Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and Free Speech for People, a national nonprofit that was launched amid the backlash stemming from the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which unleashed unprecedented corporate spending in federal and state elections. Neither group has a position in the corridor campaign, but both have piggybacked on corridor opponents’ attempts to sideline Hydro-Quebec from the wildly expensive influence campaign.
The groups’ focus is on foreign influence in U.S. elections. Hydro-Quebec, which is wholly owned by the provincial government of Quebec, is an easy target.
But Free Speech for People isn’t just concerned about Hydro-Quebec. It’s also arguing that energy players on both sides of the referendum should be barred from electioneering because all of them have significant investments by foreign governments, corporations or pension funds.
“Our position is that the (referendum) decision should be made by the people of Maine and that funding for the ballot measure campaign should be predominantly from the people of Maine, and not from the foreign-influenced corporations on both sides of the funding of the ballot measure campaign right now," Free Speech for People legal director Ron Fein told Maine Public this week.
Fein’s group also sees an opportunity to advance a larger cause. If it can convince Maine lawmakers to prohibit corporations with a certain percentage of foreign investment or ownership, it might be able to significantly limit the corporate election spending that has swamped domestic politics since Citizens United became the law of the land.
"This type of legislation would take a large bite of Citizens United," he said. "It would undo a substantial amount of the damage that Citizens United caused."
That’s why Fein’s group has supported local ordinances and legislation in other states that would limit election participation depending on a group’s level of foreign investment or ownership. It backed an ordinance recently passed by the Seattle City Council after Amazon, which has foreign investors, spent more than $1.5 million attempting to stack the council with pro-business candidates. It’s advocating for state legislation in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota. It’s also backing legislation in Congress.
The potential limiting of corporate electioneering — and the inevitable backlash that it would cause among corporations that have become accustomed to boundless voter persuasion possibilities — will no doubt complicate Maine lawmakers’ deliberations on the three foreign influence bills they’re now considering.
When the corridor debate began it was difficult to imagine that it would potentially spin off another conflict over campaign finance regulation and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling affecting corporations’ spending on elections. However, it’s a debate weighty enough to spin off several more.