Republicans in the Maine Senate blocked passage Wednesday of an emergency bill to provide direct checks 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 shy 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 the aid could reach Maine households this winter. Six senators were absent.
The House of Representatives passed the legislation earlier Wednesday on a 125-16 vote, far more than the 101 votes needed 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 into their pockets so they can better afford these energy costs and ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are able to stay warm this winter,” she said.
“Tonight, a minority of the minority choose to reject this help for Maine people,” she wrote. “I urge Senate Republicans to join their other Republican and Democratic colleagues in the Legislature to give this plan the support needed to enact it as an emergency measure, so that we can get this relief into the hands of Maine people 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 partly funded through a projected surplus in the current fiscal year.
Mills has been negotiating with incoming Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate over the last few weeks. She originally proposed income limits of $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly, but increased those limits to $100,000 and $200,000 at the request of Republicans.
Negotiations continued with leadership and Mills on Tuesday and each party caucused several times throughout the day to speak with members and chart their respective courses.
Her proposal also included $50 million for home heating assistance and $21 million for emergency housing.
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. Other funding would come from $157 million in newly available COVID-19 public health emergency funds.
The winter energy relief proposal also includes $4.4 million to cover a shortfall in the state’s last direct-to-the-people inflation relief payment. 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.
Republicans, some of whom are new to the Legislature, expressed concerns about the process for approving the bill. The measure was brought straight to the floor for votes without undergoing a committee review. That’s because Mills and Democrats believe this assistance is needed urgently and the Legislature has not yet established any committees.
While campaigning this fall, Republicans raised concerns about high heating and energy prices, calling for quick action to address them. Democrats echoed that concern and argued on Wednesday that the amount of pleas for help they heard while campaigning 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 ask,” said Stewart, adding that MaineHousing has assured lawmakers that heating assistance is available for the most vulnerable residents through July. “We feel confident this bill will pass as long as there is transparency and accountability in the process and we’re happy to do that as soon as possible.”
The Senate vote came after the bill received overwhelming support in the House and lawmakers in each chamber warned that people would become homeless, freeze on the streets or take extreme – and potentially fatal – measures to stay warm.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, tried assuage concerns about the process and funding for the proposal. Millett, who is widely respected by both parties and is considered a budget guru, said the package uses mostly one-time money to increase funding for existing programs to meet an urgent need. And it wouldn’t eliminate funding for existing programs.
SUPPORT IN THE HOUSE
Millett urged his colleagues to put partisan politics aside, not look for “scapegoats” across the aisle and do what’s right for their constituents.
“I hope we’ll choose the better course tonight and I urge you all to realize that you will own this one way or the other,” Millett said. “You need to be honest with your constituents when you go back 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 raised by members. “My conscience dictates that I support this motion,” she said.
Some House Democrats said they would support the bill even though Mills agreed to increase the income limits at the Republicans’ request.
“I’m not happy with every single thing in this emergency measure,” Rep. Charles Skold, D-Portland, said. “I wish the limits on the checks were set differently perhaps. It’s a compromise bill that needs our support. I wish … there was another way, but I know this is the way before us and I will gladly support it.”
In the Senate, Jackson delivered two floor speeches trying to bring Republicans onboard, sharing a personal story about how as a child his family struggled to stay warm in the winter. He said policy disagreements would be dealt with later in the session and shouldn’t stop them from meeting the immediate needs of Mainers.
Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, offered a motion to refer the bill to the budget-writing committee, which does not yet have any members. That vote failed 20-9, with Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, joining Republicans.
After Republicans killed Mills’ proposal, Jackson was downtrodden and at a loss for what to do next during an interview in his office. He said committee assignments don’t usually 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, taking possibly a month before any bill is passed and delaying the issuance of any refund checks, which were anticipated for January.
DESIRED CHANGES UNCLEAR
Even then, he said Republicans have not coalesced around desired changes, with some opposed to sending out checks and others opposed to any emergency housing relief.
“It certainly feels like an untenable 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 from Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, in a floor speech that Mills was acting like a dictator and that the Legislature would make itself irrelevant if it approved the bill.
“Me and Janet have fought more than anyone in this building but I still appreciated the hell out of the opportunity she gave me to help the people I care about in this state and to watch all that go away because people don’t want to help those who are less fortunate,” Jackson said.
Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, noted that a study group that met over 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 “staggering” and threatens to overload municipal welfare programs.
“My heart is heavy with the notion we could let people die on the streets and freeze to death,” Hickman said.
Pouliot was one of six members absent for the Senate vote. Others who missed the vote were Republicans Bradlee Farrin, of Norridgewock, Stacey Guerin, of Glenburn, Peter Lyford, of Eddington, and former Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner. Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, was also absent.