Maine, Washington elections may put 'power switch' in citizens' hands

Consumer activists and public utility interests are squaring off anew in lively ballot battles at opposite corners of the United States. At issue are proposals in Maine and Washington State which, if approved Nov. 3, would give voters more say in the construction of power generating plants. Although sponsors of both measures deny their intent is anti--nuclear, such projects would be hardest hit.

The Maine proposal would create a powerful three-member elected state energy commission to replace the present governor appointed public utilities commission , which also has three members.

The new agency, which would take over the regulation of electricity, gas, and telephone rates throughout the state, would also be responsible for power conservation and plans for development of generating plants, emphasizing renewable energy resources.

No longer would Maine utilities be free to invest in out of state power facilities, such as the Seabrook nuclear plant now under construction in neighboring New Hampshire and the recently canceled Pilgrim II nuclear plant that was planned at Plymouth, Mass.

The different, but similarly directed, proposal in Washington would mandate voter approval of all bonds for major public power projects. Its passage could place in jeopardy several of the 12 projects by the Washington State Public Power Supply System (WSPPSS), including four of the five nuclear plants now at various stages of construction.

The original $4.1 billion price tag on these nuclear projects have increased to $23.8 billion over the past eight years, a source of concern to boosters of the pending proposal.

While conceding that current bond market conditions are not favorable for a power construction program of such proportions, foes of the measure contend that such constraints ''will not accomplish what is sought - lower energy costs.'' They blame cost escalation on inflation rather than the ''poor planning'' and ''mismanagement'' by WSPPSS charged by boosters of the ballot proposal.

Opponents, bankrolled substantially by public utilities and construction firms which would be hard hit by a ''yes'' vote, have committed ''about $1 million,'' mostly in advertising, to fight the move, says campaign consultant Rick Glaub. Backers of the measure have taken in less than one-sixth as much, reports Steve Zemke, campaign coordinator.

Those pushing the elected energy commission proposal in Maine are similarly being substantially outspent by their opposition, which has garnered ''vote no'' editorials from several of the state's larger newspapers.

Neither Maine nor Washington proposal now appears to be the almost sure winner that opinion polls indicated even a few weeks ago.

The proposed Maine law, placed on the ballot through 43,000 voter signatures, includes the popular election of one energy commissioner statewide and one from each of the two congressional districts.

''We want to shift energy planning from the utilities to the commission, which would be representative of the people,'' asserts Lance Tapley, the ''yes'' campaign coordinator. The restrictions on the types of power development investments Maine could make ''would put these firms on a sound financial basis, '' he says.

Mr. Tapley charges that costs of investments by Maine utilities in nuclear projects elsewhere in New England, some of which have been discontinued or may be headed in that direction, are being ''unfairly passed on to electricity users.''

Foes of the proposal, like John Melrose of Citizens for Responsible Government, argue that the elected energy commission would vest ''too much power in too few.'' They are particularly concerned over the board's broad policy-shaping authority and ability to proceed with planned projects involving state funds if at least one-third of the members of either legislative chamber approve.

The Soviet decision to sanction a PLO embassy in Moscow may be less the sign of a growing friendship than a move to soothe recent tensions between Moscow and Yasser Arafat.

One Soviet government source suggests privately that the Kremlin decision was intended to balance a refusal to provide sophisticated missiles to the guerrilla group.

There had been other signs of Soviet-PLO strain in recent months, too. Arafat did not attend the Soviet Communist Party congress in February and the delegation head, PLO ''foreign minister'' Farouk Khaddoumi, left early. The No. 3 envoy, executive committee member Yasser Abd Rabbo, told the Monitor at the time that he had addressed the congress, but this was not reported in the official Soviet press.

Arafat's Oct. 19-21 Moscow visit was itself postponed at least twice before it finally came off, Soviet sources say.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.