Photo of chamber voting board for LD1 | Republicans block emergency winter energy relief plan
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on December 8, 2022
Senate Republicans on Wednesday rejected Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to provide immediate aid to Mainers through direct checks, other relief for home heating and investments in housing assistance, dealing a blow to efforts to get funds to people before the winter.
Mills announced the details of the $474 million spending package late Tuesday, and lawmakers were poised to take swift action on the first day of the new legislative session, with the governor pushing for passage of the plan with a two-thirds majority that would allow funds to get to Mainers more quickly.
The House overwhelmingly passed the measure, but the bill failed to reach the two-thirds threshold in the Senate. The vote in the Senate was 21-8 in favor of the measure, with 6 senators excused from voting. All Democrats voting in the Senate supported the plan, while all Republicans voting rejected it. In addition, five of the six excused senators were Republicans, who as a party made high energy prices a centerpiece of their failed campaign to win back control of the Blaine House and the Maine House and Senate in the November election.
Republicans criticized the bill for not going through a public hearing, the normal path a bill takes before being considered by the full legislature, arguing that lawmakers shouldn’t approve hundreds in millions in spending without such a process. A Republican-led motion to refer the bill to a committee for a public hearing also failed Wednesday.
However, Mills pushed back against the GOP’s argument in a statement released Wednesday night, reiterating the seriousness of the issues facing Mainers as winter approaches, with heating costs high and a dire housing crisis facing the state. She also noted that the proposal had been negotiated beforehand with both Democrats and Republicans.
“The plan I proposed incorporates the feedback of Republican and Democratic leadership in the Legislature. It builds on the nation-leading inflation relief measure we delivered earlier this year — and it is the fastest, most direct way to get help to Maine people as we work to bring down energy costs in the long-term. Tonight, a minority of the minority choose to reject this help for Maine people,” Mills said, calling for Republicans to approve the plan.
Mills’ proposal, which would have been partially paid for using a forecasted $283 million budget surplus, was headlined by checks of $450 to a projected 880,000 Mainers, meant to help people pay for household heating. The checks were income-targeted, but a wide swath of Mainers, including those in upper-income brackets, would have received the money. Those eligible included single filers making less than $100,000, heads of household making less than $150,000 and couples filing jointly making less than $200,000. The governor’s office said in a news release that the plan would have provided an estimated $900 for the average Mainer, with funds arriving by mid-January.
Along with the direct checks — a similar proposal to the $850 checks Mainers received earlier this year — Mills’ plan included other spending such as $40 million for the Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps homeowners and renters pay for heating costs. In addition, the measure contained $10 million for the Maine Community Action Partnerships to help that group deliver emergency fuel for people who need it.
Separate from the spending bill, Mills also took executive action to help distribute heating aid to older, low-income Mainers, announcing that the state will provide a payment of $500 to about 13,000 households.
Also in the spending plan proposed to the legislature was $21 million meant to aid the Emergency Housing Relief Fund formed by Mills and the legislature earlier this year, which works to prevent people from experiencing homelessness.
Mixed reaction to plan from progressive lawmakers
While Democrats ultimately backed the plan before it was sunk by Republicans, some progressive lawmakers said the $450 checks could have been better targeted. They argued that those on the upper end of the income threshold — individuals making nearly $100,000 and couples making nearly $200,000 — didn’t need the money and that targeting the plan could have opened up funds to provide additional help for low-income people. Mills said she and other Democrats agreed to raise the income thresholds to include wealthier people at the request of Republicans, who still rejected the measure.
“There is necessary relief in the package to keep the most vulnerable Mainers housed and warm during the winter, but at the same time, the state will be sending checks to well off individuals and families who don’t need the help,” Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) said of the plan Wednesday morning before the legislature voted on it.
“We simply cannot continue governing crisis to crisis with the governor giving the legislature limited options for shaping budgets that fund desperately needed programs for all Mainers,” Lookner added.
Rep. Sophia Warren (D-Scarborough) also expressed concerns with the plan. She said while newly-elected House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) pushed hard for a more equitable measure, other stakeholders were not willing to support such a package.
Like Lookner, Warren criticized the direct checks, arguing that high-income earners would receive money they don’t need. She said a better plan would be to lower the income threshold for checks to under $75,000 for single filers, which would free up additional money for the emergency rental assistance program, which is slated to soon run out of funds. Warren said securing funding for that program is an emergency and is something frontline communities have been asking for.
“This emergency measure has misplaced priorities inconsistent with the needs of Maine people,” she said, adding that the package did not “meet this moment and address this crisis.”
Other legislators also expressed concern about the plan even as they praised some aspects of the measure.
Rep. Sam Zager of Portland said the bill was good but not perfect. Zager said he fully supported the $21 million within the measure for emergency housing, which he noted Talbot Ross and others negotiated into the package. However, he said an even better bill would adjust the qualifications for the checks to better help low and middle-income people heat their homes and stay sheltered or use some of that money for other important policy priorities the legislature will consider this session.
“Longer term, we would be well served to optimize insulation and rapidly move to renewables like solar and wind. But the bill takes us some steps in a good direction … in time for winter,” Zager said Wednesday afternoon before the vote.
Rep. Ben Collings (D-Portland) added that while the bill is 95% beneficial, he and some other lawmakers “want to end the precedent of emergency relief going to households with close to 17k in monthly income,” calling it “absurd” that such households would have received the money.
Overall, Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland) said the Democratic caucus worked hard to get aid to people who need it the most, such as those who are at risk of losing housing and those who are homeless. While the heating assistance plan could have been improved, Kessler said the bill would have helped people.
“I am not going to throw away the baby with the bathwater,” he said Wednesday morning.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at email@example.com.