Inside Augusta

Appropriations Committee Democrats sink plan to accelerate disbursement of direct relief checks

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During a work session on a bill proposing to return surplus money to taxpayers, Democrats on the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) voted to table a motion to amend the bill to accelerate the process of providing relief to Maine taxpayers by disbursing direct relief checks electronically.

LD 327, a concept draft sponsored by Rep. Jeff Hanley (R-Pittston), proposed putting into the General Fund only the amount of money necessary to cover the state’s outstanding obligations and returning 75% of the remaining amount to taxpayers. The final 25% would have been transferred to the Budget Stabilization Fund, or rainy day fund.

Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford) proposed replacing LD 327 with an emergency resolution using language about direct relief checks from Gov. Janet MIlls’ supplemental budget proposal. 

Millett, who said he wanted to see money returned to taxpayers earlier than the timeframe proposed by the governor, also stated he wanted the checks to be distributed electronically rather than by mail. 

Millett proposed adopting language from Part L of Mills’ budget proposal which establishes the COVID Pandemic Relief Payment Program Fund within the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs and the COVID Pandemic Relief Payment Program. The relief fund receives money from a one-time transfer from the General Fund for the purpose of “providing payments to help eligible Maine citizens recover from economic impacts” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Millett proposed adding the following language to the amendment: 

“Payments shall be made by electronic fund transfer. Any payments by check, draft or similar paper instrument shall be processed only after eligible individuals for whom electronic data and distribution is not possible.”

He also said he wanted to see checks begin to go out to Mainers no later than June. The Mills administration has said relief checks proposed in her supplemental budget will be mailed beginning in July.

Millett’s amendment was tabled following a vote by the committee which fell along party lines, with the committee’s eight Democratic members voting in favor of tabling the amendment against Republican opposition.

Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland) said she hadn’t seen the amendment prior to the work session and didn’t feel like she could vote for it.

“Given that you’re just laying out a fairly complicated piece of legislation verbally, I didn’t feel like I could take an informed vote,” Breen said. 

Millett said he wanted to get language for the amendment in front of the committee “as quickly as possible.” 

Following the vote, House Republicans issued a press release opposing the decision made by Democrats on the AFA Committee.

“We want to return taxpayers’ money now. Rather than wait for the Legislature to complete work on the supplemental budget, Republicans want to vote on a bill that could get money back in pockets months sooner. This is money that could be spent putting fuel in the tank to heat your house or drive to work. It shouldn’t be held hostage by Democrats who would prefer to spend it on growing government,” the Republican caucus said via a press release.

House Republicans also said they will outline their priorities for the remaining surplus money this week. Mills’ supplemental budget proposal leaves $20 million of the state’s projected $1.2 billion surplus unallocated for lawmakers to spend as they see fit. 

Republicans said their proposal will include a plan to expand eligibility for the relief checks to 560,000 individuals who do not meet filing requirements outlined in Mills’ plan. Under the governor’s plan, only individuals who earn less than $75,000 or households earning less than $150,000 qualify to receive a $850 relief check.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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