Corridor question will still have an impact

Morning Sentinel

Maine’s highest court has said there won’t be a referendum on a transmission line this year, which is good news for some candidates.

When Central Maine Power filed its legal challenge to the referendum on the New England Clean Energy Connect corridor, it didn’t seem to have much chance at success. That wasn’t because the referendum was plainly legal and constitutional: In fact, regardless of how one feels about the project itself, it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t. Rather, it was because the Maine Supreme Judicial Court had never in its history blocked the appearance of a referendum on the ballot because the proposal was illegal.

But in its recent ruling, the state’s highest court did not establish a broad new precedent for reviewing citizen initiatives before the election. That would have upended the entire citizen initiative process in Maine, as well as tossing out decades of established precedent. Instead, they ruled narrowly that neither the Legislature nor a referendum could overturn the decision of an independent regulatory authority like the Public Utilities Commission.

Essentially, the opponents of the corridor got their timing wrong. If they had wanted to stop the project, they should have submitted a proposal to do so before the PUC ruled on it, instead of trying to force the PUC to change its mind after the fact. Even though the state supreme court didn’t establish broad new powers to rule on the constitutionality of pending referendums, they made it clear that the citizen initiative process has some limits, and that’s a good thing.

Because it involved a referendum, this ruling will probably have enormous political consequences, both in the short term and down the road. This year, it will be a blessing for both Republican legislators and Janet Mills that the referendum isn’t on the ballot. This was one issue where Republicans – especially in the House – often agreed with the Democratic governor, and it could have been used as a wedge issue in their individual races. While their opponents might not abandon the topic entirely, the project’s removal from the ballot will be helpful to Republicans who supported the corridor. They’re less likely to be asked about it by constituents on a day-to-day basis if it’s not being voted on this year. It will also be easier for them to explain their votes on bills related to the project outside the heat of a referendum campaign.

For Mills, it buries an issue that divides her own party and her geographic base, at least temporarily. Though she supported the project, many residents of western Maine were opposed to it, as are many Democrats in the Legislature. Legislative efforts to curtail the project ultimately failed, but they frequently received overwhelming support from Democrats in the State House, especially more liberal members of the caucus. A referendum campaign would have highlighted and deepened those divides, showing that Maine Democrats aren’t always in lockstep behind Mills.

Blocking the referendum campaign is also a blessing for incumbent U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. He’s avoided taking a stance on the issue, speaking out about it only a few times in an official capacity. He largely took a wait-and-see approach to the corridor, just as he did during President Trump’s impeachment trial – and just as it did during impeachment, that cautious approach may well prove to have been politically wise.

When Golden split his vote on impeachment, it may have annoyed some liberals and infuriated Trump supporters, but it probably didn’t cost him many votes. Those liberals who wish that Golden had voted for both articles of impeachment don’t have anywhere else to go, and Trump supporters upset about impeachment were unlikely to vote for Golden anyway. Similarly, now that the corridor won’t be an issue on the ballot this year, most voters aren’t going to suddenly abandon him because he’s failed to take a stance on it.

The removal of the issue from the ballot also firmly places the hopes of the anti-corridor activists in one place: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The final steps for the project are federal ones, including a presidential permit, and Donald Trump could move to stop the corridor. Since it’s mainly a local political issue, he hasn’t taken a stance on it, but blocking it could well help his electoral prospects in Maine. While liberal opponents of the corridor wouldn’t suddenly vote for Trump en masse, it might well help him with both conservatives and independents, who are a huge voting bloc in Maine.

Even though the corridor won’t be on the ballot in November, it is likely to have major political impacts on Maine nevertheless, both in this cycle and for years to come.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.

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