Gov. Janet Mills unveiled a $474 million emergency winter energy relief plan Tuesday that would include $450 checks for eligible Mainers and provide an additional $50 million for home heating assistance programs and $21 million for emergency housing programs.
Under her plan, which could be voted on Wednesday after state lawmakers are sworn into office, 858,000 Mainers earning up to $100,000 a year, heads of household earning up to $150,000 and married couples earning $200,000 would be eligible to get the check.
If the bill passes, the average Maine family would get a check in the mail for $900 by mid-January.
The heating relief plan, which requires the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to go into effect this winter, was created to ensure that low-income and middle-class Mainers can stay warm despite facing near record-high energy prices in the most heating oil dependent state in the U.S.
“We want to get an emergency bill enacted to keep people from freezing to death in the next couple of months,” Mills said in an exclusive interview with the Portland Press Herald. “That’s important. What’s government for, except to save lives, fundamentally, first and foremost.”
Inflation and high energy prices are hitting Mainers hard, sometimes forcing them to choose between heating their homes, putting food on the table, or paying for other necessities, Mills said. She said her plan would “ease the burden on Maine people by putting money back into their pockets.”
But it must win the support of at least two thirds of state lawmakers before that can happen.
Maine political leaders spent Tuesday trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal that had support from both sides of the political aisle before putting it to a vote Wednesday, but talks broke down after Republicans asked for time to hold a hearing on the proposal and get more information on how it would be funded.
After weeks of discussions, including talks that went on over the weekend and two-hour caucuses in Augusta on Tuesday, Mills wound up unveiling the details of her plan at 5 p.m. Tuesday – a day before lawmakers are sworn in – without an official endorsement from the Maine GOP.
Mills said during her interview Tuesday that she believed they were close to a deal.
“It’s a typical legislative democracy where everyone has something to say and everybody’s got an idea,” Mills said. “But this is an emergency bill and I stressed to them that this is a true emergency bill given the impending cold weather and the unheard of high prices for heating oil and other heating supplies.”
House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, and Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, refused to answer reporters’ questions about the closed-door negotiations and spent the day going back and forth between caucus meetings and Mills’ office.
Earlier in the day, however, individual Republicans outlined their concerns with Mills’ proposal.
“We want to do this, but we want to do it right,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do it quickly, can’t get it done before winter. I think we should have a public hearing. It is a lot of money and we should know where it’s coming from.”
For example, Mills wants to dip into a fund earmarked for traumatic brain injury programs, he said. At present, Maine must send most of its brain injury patients out of state because of already underfunded programs, he said. That may not be the right program to use to fund heating assistance, he said.
For Republican Eric Brakey of Auburn, a former state senator who will be sworn in for another term Wednesday, it’s nursing home funding. When he led the health and human services committee, nursing homes were never fully funded. He doubts that has changed much, especially given the pandemic.
“I think it’s important that we reassert the Legislature as the third branch of government,” Brakey said. “I haven’t heard any reason why this needs to be rushed in tomorrow. We can move with speed without ignoring the responsibility of the Legislature to make sure the people have a voice in the process.”
Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, said it would be unusual to send a bill to a legislative committee with a plan for immediate action – after all, committees usually start work in January – but it’s also unusual to call for a vote on a $474 million bill on the opening day of the Legislature.
Some members of the Republican caucus in both the House and Senate also raised concerns about the $15 million included in the plan for the Maine State Housing Authority to cover short-term emergency housing needs this winter, including extending hotel stays for those already homeless.
Emergency bills, once signed by Mills, take effect immediately, but enactment requires the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers. Democrats hold 23 seats in the Senate and 82 seats in the House; that means they need one vote more than that in the Senate and 19 more in the House to pass the emergency legislation.
Mills and her staff are negotiating with the four legislative leaders: Stewart and Faulkingham on the Republican side and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland on the Democratic side.
Both Republicans and Democrats say these negotiations will likely set the tone for the next two years.
Economic issues, especially inflation and the high cost of home heating fuel, were top of mind for Maine voters during the last campaign cycle. Both parties have embraced the idea of another round of state assistance.
Last week, the Mills administration floated a $447 million plan that would have included $450 checks, but with lower income levels than those included in the latest plan, as well as home heating assistance and funds for emergency housing.
Under that plan, individuals earning up to $75,000 a year would get a $450 check, and married couples filing jointly earning up to $150,000 would get a $900 check. At the request of Republicans, individuals earning $100,000, heads of household earning $150,000 and couples earning $200,000 would now qualify.
The latest version of the plan, with a higher eligibility threshold included, now clocks in at $474 million.
“This approach builds on our nation-leading inflation relief measure, incorporates Republican feedback, and represents the most direct way to get help to Maine people as we work to bring down energy costs in the long-term,” Mills said Tuesday.
The earlier plan also called for $15 million to support emergency housing and shelters over the winter to help fill the gap that is expected to be left when federal rental assistance ends in the coming weeks. The new version of the plan increases that to $21 million.
Mills also announced she is taking executive action to distribute additional heating aid to low-income older Maine people. During the week of Dec. 12, the Department of Health and Human Services will provide one-time $500 payments to 13,000 households that include older low-income Mainers.
Officials are looking to tap an anticipated surplus of $283 million projected for the current fiscal year, but that’s not enough to cover the costs of the draft proposal. The rest would come from $157 million in newly available COVID-19 public health emergency funds and $34 million in fund balance.
The winter energy relief proposal also includes $4.4 million to cover a shortfall in the state’s last direct-to-the-people payment, inflation relief. The state had originally estimated that 858,000 residents were eligible for those $850 checks, but it was left short when an extra 22,000 eventually qualified.
The plan also reestablishes a process in state law that allows the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to waive sulfur limitations in fuel to protect public health, safety, or welfare, something that former Gov. Paul LePage raised this fall on the campaign trail when trying to unseat Mills.
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