The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has upheld a lower court’s ruling to allow a referendum question on the November ballot that seeks to overturn regulatory approval of Central Maine Power Co.’s planned transmission corridor through western Maine.
In a ruling issued Thursday, the court affirmed that Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap acted appropriately when deciding that opponents of the project had gathered enough valid signatures to place the question on the ballot.
Delbert Reed, a former CMP employee, had challenged Dunlap’s decision in Maine Superior Court, based in part on improprieties in the petition-gathering process that were discovered by the state. Dunlap threw out some petition signatures but chose not to launch a wide-ranging fraud investigation.
The court suggested that Dunlap could have done more to investigate the fraud allegations, but that his decision not to did not constitute “an error of law or an abuse of discretion.”
“Based on all of the evidence presented, combined with the absence of any suggestion of fraud raised by municipal officers, the Secretary of State reasonably determined that such broad assertions were insufficient grounds to launch an additional investigation of the entire campaign,” the ruling states.
CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect would serve carry 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydroelectric power to the New England regional grid.
CMP contends the project, funded by Massachusetts ratepayers, would benefit Maine and the region by lowering carbon emissions, reducing fossil fuel usage and stabilizing electricity costs. But opponents say the project would create environmental damage and hurt homegrown solar, wind and biomass projects in Maine.
In March, Dunlap said backers of the anti-corridor referendum gathered 69,714 valid signatures, more than the 63,067 required to place the question on the November ballot, even though 12,735 signatures were ruled invalid.
Dunlap later examined the actions of eight notaries involved in signature-gathering and determined that three acted improperly, either by circulating petitions themselves and subsequently notarizing petitions for other circulators, or by not administering an oath to circulators in an authorized manner. He also disqualified all the signatures previously found valid from one circulator whose petition was rife with errors.
Reed’s legal challenge to the initial certification on March 4 remanded the matter back to Dunlap’s office, and he disqualified an additional 2,052 signatures in April to lower the total to validated total to 66,117, still above the 63,067 threshold.
Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy ruled in April that Dunlap’s interpretation of the law was sound as it pertained to the gathering of signatures.
If supported by voters in November, the referendum would order the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse its 2019 finding that the planned, 145-mile power line stretching from Lewiston to the Quebec border is in the state’s best interests.
A successful referendum to overturn the decision of an apolitical regulatory body would be unprecedented in Maine, and it is unclear whether such an outcome could withstand a legal challenge.