Plan to provide heating aid and emergency checks fails in Maine Senate

Republicans in the Maine Senate on Wednesday blocked passage of an emergency bill to provide direct control and heating and housing assistance to struggling Mainers this winter.

The Senate voted along party lines with Democrats supporting the plan proposed by Gov. Janet Mills and Republicans opposed. The 21-8 vote fell three votes short of the two-thirds support needed to pass the legislation as an emergency measure — which would take effect immediately after being signed by the governor — so aid could reach Maine households this winter. Six senators were absent.

The House of Representatives passed the legislation earlier Wednesday by a vote of 125-16, well short of the 101 votes required for two-thirds support.

Mills criticized Senate Republicans in a written statement after the vote, but also said she hopes to try again and win their support.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact that high energy prices are having on Maine people. We must ease the burden by putting money back in their pockets so they can better afford these energy costs and ensure our most vulnerable citizens can stay heat this winter,” she said.

“Tonight, a minority of the minority chooses to reject this aid to Maine people,” she wrote. “I urge Senate Republicans to join their fellow Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Legislature to give this plan the support it needs to pass as an emergency measure so we can get this relief into the hands of the people of Maine without delay.”

The centerpiece of the $474 million proposal was a round of refund checks to nearly 858,000 eligible taxpayers. The $450 checks would cost about $398 million and be partially funded through an expected surplus in the current fiscal year.

Mills has been negotiating with the incoming Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate over the past few weeks. She initially proposed income limits of $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly, but raised those limits to $100,000 and $200,000 at the request of Republicans.

Negotiations continued with management and Mills on Tuesday, with each side meeting several times throughout the day to speak with members and chart their respective courses.

Her proposal also included $50 million for home heating and $21 million for emergency housing.

Officials are looking to tap into a projected surplus of $283 million expected for the current fiscal year, but that is not enough to cover the costs of the draft proposal. Other funding would come from $157 million in newly available public health COVID-19 emergency funds.

The winter energy relief proposal also includes $4.4 million to cover a shortfall in the state’s last direct-to-people inflation aid. The state had originally estimated that 858,000 residents were eligible for those $850 checks, but that was left short when another 22,000 eventually qualified.

Republicans, some of whom are new to the Legislature, expressed concern about the process for approving the bill. The measure was brought directly to the floor for a vote without undergoing a committee review. That’s because Mills and Democrats believe this assistance is urgently needed and the Legislature has yet to establish any committees.

While campaigning this fall, Republicans raised concerns about high heat and energy prices and called for quick action to address them. Democrats echoed that concern, arguing Wednesday that the volume of pleas for help they heard during the campaign was all they needed to act.

After the vote, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said Republicans were ready to support a bill that includes “speed, transparency and accountability.” He did not identify any specific provisions of the bill that were problematic and only called for a public hearing.

“This is not a big issue,” Stewart said, adding that MaineHousing has assured lawmakers that heating assistance is available for the most vulnerable residents through July. “We feel confident that this bill will pass as long as there is transparency and accountability in the process, and we are happy to do so as soon as possible.”

The Senate vote came after the bill received overwhelming support in the House, with lawmakers in each chamber warning that people would be left homeless, freezing on the streets or taking extreme — and potentially fatal — measures to stay warm.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, tried to quell concerns about the process and funding of the proposal. Millett, who is widely respected by both parties and considered a budget guru, said the package uses mostly one-time money to boost funding for existing programs to meet an urgent need. And it would not eliminate funding for existing programs.

SUPPORT IN THE HOUSE

Millett urged his colleagues to put party politics aside, not look for “scapegoats” across the aisle and do what’s right for their constituents.

“I hope we choose the better course tonight and I encourage all of you to realize that you are going to own this one way or another,” Millett said. “You have to be honest with your constituents when you go home.”

Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying the proposal was negotiated in good faith and that she would continue to work on long-term issues and other concerns members raised. “My conscience dictates that I support this proposal,” she said.

Some House Democrats said they would support the bill, even though Mills agreed to increase the income limits at Republicans’ request.

“I’m not happy with every single thing in this emergency measure,” said Rep. Charles Skold, D-Portland. “I wish the limits for the checks had been set differently. It is a compromise proposal that needs our support. I wish … there was another way, but I know this is the path before us and I will gladly support it.”

In the Senate, Jackson gave two speeches in an effort to get Republicans on board, sharing a personal story about how his family struggled to stay warm in the winter as a child. He said policy differences would be addressed later in the session and should not prevent them from meeting the immediate needs of Mainers.

Late. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, offered a motion to refer the bill to the Budget Committee, which does not yet have any members. That vote failed 20-9, with Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, joining the Republicans.

After Republicans killed Mills’ proposal, Jackson was depressed and unsure of what to do next during an interview in his office. He said committee assignments usually don’t come out until the end of the year, after he’s had time to get recommendations from the minority party. In this case, he said, Stewart has not offered any committee assignments.

That process would likely push any public hearing into January, he said, possibly taking a month for a bill to pass, delaying the issuance of any refund checks that were expected in January.

DESIRED CHANGES UNCLEAR

Even then, he said, Republicans have not agreed on the desired changes, with some opposed to issuing checks and others opposed to any housing relief.

“It certainly feels like an unsustainable way to operate, where there’s just no way I’m going to be able to do anything to convince enough of them to come along,” he said.

Jackson pushed back against a characterization by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, in a speech that Mills was behaving like a dictator and that the Legislature would make itself irrelevant if it approved the bill.

“Me and Janet have fought more than anyone else in this building, but I still appreciated the opportunity she gave me to help the people I care about in this condition and to see all that go away because people don’t want help those who are less fortunate,” Jackson said.

Late. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, noted that a study group that met during the fall recommended similar proposals included in the package. That process included public hearings and a vote of support from Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta.

Hickman said the number of people who could lose housing when federal rental assistance expires is “dwindling” and threatens to overburden municipal welfare programs.

“My heart is heavy with the thought that we could let people die in the street, freezing to death,” Hickman said.

Pouliot was one of six members absent from the Senate vote. Others who missed the vote were Republicans Bradlee Farrin, Norridgewock, Stacey Guerin, Glenburn, Peter Lyford, Eddington and former Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner. Late. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, was also absent.


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