Consumers, angry over rising utility bills, have forced utility issues onto the ballot in November in an unprecedented number of states, alarming the industry and producing heated campaigns that have seeped into other races.
In eight states from coast to coast, groups have used the initiative process to put utility-related proposals on the ballot. One has already been knocked off on a technicality, and most of the rest have provoked massive counterefforts by utilities and the business community to defeat them.
In Maine and Massachusetts voters will decide whether to eliminate or limit the use of nuclear power plants, while in five other states ballot issues proposed changes ranging from the election of state public utility commissions and the creation of agencies to act as advocates for consumers in utility cases to the prohibition of automatic pass-throughs of increased fuel costs. In Idaho, voters will be asked to vote to support nuclear power.
"Unlike the last spate of consumer revolt, when anger was directed at the Public Utility Commissions . . . consumers seem to have gotten more savvy in their approach," a recent Dean Witter Reynolds utility industry analysis noted.
One of the initiatives that has caused the greatest concern is in Maine--"because of the precedent it might set," said Fran Valluzzo, manager of the Edison Electric Institute's state and local government relations office.
The Maine initiative would shut down nuclear power generation in the state by 1987, closing the Maine Yankee power plant, which provides approximately a third of Maine's power.
A similar initiative failed in 1980. That proposal would have shut down the plant immediately.
"The accident at Three Mile Island was the original reason for the first referendum," said Jo Ann Mooney, director of the referendum campaign. In February the state approved placing the issue on the ballot a second time.
In July, opponents of the issue began advertising heavily on radio and television. Mooney claims the advertising helped her group's cause. "Then it became real to people. The phones haven't stopped ringing since," she said.
The Committee to Save Maine Yankee, which successfully opposed the earlier ballot proposal, is also leading the opposition this year. The group includes some 40,000 citizens and is supported by but not run by utility companies such as Central Maine Power, according to that company's spokesman.
Opponents of the measure argue that it would force the state's utility companies to replace generating capacity by buying expensive oil. To do so would increase residential electricity bills dramatically -- perhaps by as much as 21 percent, according to one state study -- and drive industry from the state, they argue.
An Arkansas initiative has already been stricken from the ballot by the state Supreme Court. It called for an elected utility commission, a consumer advocate agency and elimination of fuel cost pass-throughs. The court ruled that the ballot's summary -- some 800 words long -- was confusing.
Proponents asked for a rehearing but concede that their chances are slim. "Fundamentally the court decided that the voters are too dumb to vote on this issue -- that it's too complicated for the voters," said Zach Polett, of Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
ACORN, the state labor federation and other groups collected signatures in favor of the initiative, spurred by a $102 million increase granted in May, 1982, to Arkansas Power and Light Co. Nearly three weeks ago, the state certified that the group had enough signatures for the initiative to appear on the ballot.
Then came the court challenge to the proposal on the basis that the ballot description was too complicated. "It did work to the benefit of the utilities that the proponents had put so much into it that it sort of collapsed of its own weight," said Jerol Garrison, a spokesman for Arkansas Power and Light.
The utility company itself was neutral on the issue, although the company's president said he personally opposed the initiative.
In Massachusetts, voters will decide whether to restrict construction of new nuclear power plants. In Michigan and Ohio, ballots will include proposals for elected utility commissions. "Governors generally appoint political hacks," said lawyer Henry W. Eckhart, former chairman of Ohio's utility commission and a supporter of the measure.
In Missouri, whether or not a proposal for a citizen's utility board appears on the ballot depends on a court hearing. Supporters failed to get the issue on the ballot after opponents got petition signers to withdraw their names. Although supporters of the measure later produced affidavits from people saying they were misled and wanted their names reinstated, it was too late. The court will review a challenge to the law that permits signatures to be withdrawn, said Dean DeHart of Missourians for a Citizens Utility Board.
Nevada's ballot includes a proposal for a utility consumer advocacy agency.
In Idaho, Citizens for Energy and the Environment, which includes a large number of John Birch Society members, got a pro-nuclear power proposal on the ballot. "We think it's just historic," said Don Fotheringham, an organizer of the group.