Bill Nemitz: Voters from Maine to CMP, Avangrid and Iberdrola: Can you hear us now?


There are plenty of takeaways from Question 1 to Tuesday’s landslide, but none as strong as Central Maine Power Co.’s: No fear tactic is safe to hit. Evah.

“With over 400 jobs in Maine and our ability to meet our climate goals at stake, this fight will continue,” promised Jon Breed, executive director of the Deep Pockets Clean Energy Matters Policy Action Committee. As he spoke, a tidal wave of voter anger swept through the CMP-backed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project.

He is right. The fight now goes to court, where CMP, its parent companies – Connecticut-based Avangrid and Spain-based Iberdrola – and God knows who else will fight to save the proposed billion-dollar hydroelectric transmission line. and 145 miles from the Quebec border to electricity-hungry Massachusetts.

Yet Maine has spoken. With all but a handful of ballots counted, 59% of voters told the CMP and its allies that their $ 67 million spent to oppose Question 1 was, in the end, a wild ride.

How did it break down so one-sidedly? Theories abound – from the project’s environmental impact to the lingering feeling that Maine, in return for letting 1,200 megawatts of electricity flow through its backyard, would be offset by what seemed like a foolish change.

But before this week, two more insurmountable obstacles stood in the way.

First, in recent years, the Mainers have evaluated the CMP to be somewhere between pain in the buttocks and a tooth abscess. Years of gruesome service, unbridled arrogance and unmatched inefficiency made the public service powerless when it came to convincing citizens that what was good for the CMP was good for them too.

Second, well aware of the polls and polls that put them in the basement of public opinion, the CMP and the rest of the pro-NECEC coalition have chosen to bluff rather than play a hand that aside from the strong emotions, was not that bad. .

The grim and catastrophic warnings regarding Question 1 grew increasingly desperate as Election Day approached.

At the end of the summer, seizing that parts of the referendum had been made retroactive to capture the NECEC project, Clean Energy Matters and its provocation partner, Mainers for Fair Laws, began flooding the media sphere with predictions as well. unfounded as laughable. .

“Retroactivity,” they warned, would give lawmakers “new power” – even if it doesn’t. This would lead the state to largely shut down small businesses – except that it does nothing of the sort. And in an astonishing leap from common sense to sheer paranoia, Mainers for Fair Laws published a pre-Halloween letter shouting that “Question 1 sets a frightening precedent for gun grabbers.” No wonder one of them explodes in their face.

What made it all so pathetic – not to mention the wasteful – was that compelling arguments could have been made for the NECEC. One who has at least tried to overcome parish concerns that Maine is Massachusetts’ doormat by praising the role hydropower can play in tackling worst-case climate change scenarios.

Would it have worked? We’ll never know. Did the fear tactic, which came from a public service that most Mainers already despised, almost guaranteed Tuesday’s outcome? Without a doubt.

An explanation for the success of question 1 could be found in what is called the “ultimatum game”. It’s an often-repeated psychological experience, rooted in economics but also about politics:

Two people are seated opposite each other. One receives something of value – say $ 100 – to share with the other. The holder of the money, the “presenter”, must decide how much to give to the one who has nothing, whom we will call “the acceptor”. But there’s a catch: if the presenter offers too little, the acceptor can decline – in which case neither gets a dime.

Common sense would dictate that the acceptor would accept any offer – a little money, even a little, would be better than no money. But in practice, the notion of fairness creeps into the transaction: in the face of a manifestly inequitable distribution of money, the acceptor is more likely to reverse the entire transaction simply to get revenge on the presenter.

Here in Maine, voters could benefit – at least indirectly – from the 1,200 megawatts of electricity flowing on the New England grid. They would also have benefited – at least gradually – from the $ 258 million offered by NECEC for tariff relief for low-income families, discounts for electric vehicles and subsidies for heat pumps and the expansion of the market. broadband.

Yet, overwhelmingly, they said no to all of this. Many viewed NECEC’s benefits program as a bribe – and a pittance at that. They found the incessant advertisements not only boring, but an insult to our collective intelligence. And from CMP to its parent company, Avangrid, to its international conglomerate, Iberdrola, Mainers seemed tired of not just being ignored all these years, but being treated like a speed bump on the road to Iberdrola. to billions of new profits.

In short, an overwhelming majority of voters in Maine bristled at the injustice of it all.

Certainly the pro-Question 1 crowd had its banter with deception. Characterizations of the area in question as “virgin wilderness” have belied the fact that much of it has long been, and will be for a long time, a commercial forest. About two-thirds of the project route, rather than bulldozing through unspoiled landscape, would run parallel to existing transmission lines.

But those hiccups pale on the bill for products that NECEC backers have sold – and will now try to sell to the courts – in pursuit of their 10-figure windfall.

As one voter, speaking for many, told Press Herald reporter Tux Turkel outside a Yarmouth polling station on Tuesday, these are the CMP’s ‘fear tactics and misrepresentation’, along with its years of mismanagement, which led him to vote “yes” on shutting down the NECEC project.

Despite this vote, this project continues. With their electoral bluffs failing to scare Maine off, Iberdrola and company will now proceed to the riskiest of bets – that with a little help from the courts, the hundreds of millions and counting they have already poured into. the NECEC will not be in vain. .

We’ll see. For now, all that is certain is a rare vote that has united almost all of Maine. A vote that, when the dust cleared, was not really about power.

It was a question of punishment.

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