State lawmakers debated until late Thursday night over Democratic Gov. Janet Mills massive $447 million spending proposal, a proposal she wanted the State Legislature to rubber-stamp without public hearings.
Forgoing the standard process and skipping public hearings would require two-thirds of the Legislature to support the package, which means minority Republicans have the power for force hearings for the bill.
Ultimately, Republicans succeeded in forcing the package to go through the regular order of public hearings.
“After a bipartisan vote in the Senate to send LD 1 to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee for a public hearing, Senate Republicans stand ready to deliver assistance to Maine’s most vulnerable people with speed, accountability and transparency,” said Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook).
Democratic lawmakers countered that there had already been enough transparency for lawmakers to understand the bill. That included a state commission that spent part of the summer studying housing-related issues in the state.
The spending package, which Gov. Mills endeavored to market as a “Winter Heating Assistance” package, included funding for more checks to Maine residents which could be spent on anything, emergency housing assistance, and more funding for the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
The LIHEAP funding would not impact the program, though, until the next heating season. It’s unclear why Mills and Democratic lawmakers asked for the heating assistance to pass on an emergency basis considering LIHEAP is already funded through next June.
Maine Housing Authority spokesman Scott Thistle confirmed as much in an email yesterday.
“[W]e do anticipate that LIHEAP funding will cover all the eligible applications that will be taken through the end of the program year in July,” he said.
The Legislature will reconsider the proposal in January, but may consider parts of it earlier if there is another emergency proposal.
In statement emailed out after the vote, Mills seemed to leave the door open for legislative action before the Legislature convenes in January.
“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,” she said.
Maine’s legacy media last night cast the Republican insistence on public hearings as a move that would prevent Democrats from helping struggling Mainers.
The Portland newspaper failed to report that the LIHEAP program is already funded for the current year and incorrectly implied the funding from the bill would provide heating assistance for the current season.
Also lost in the conversation is the funding source for Mills’ massive spending package. Although newspaper reports make it seem like the money is sitting in a vault somewhere, the funding for the package is actually based on forecasted future revenues, which may or may not materialize, and federal Medicaid dollars originally meant for nursing homes and mental health.
Some Republicans had originally supported the spending proposal, reasoning that letting Mills send out $450 checks to Maine residents was better than the eventual alternative: letting left-wing House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) use the money on radical progressive schemes.
Some Republicans even believed that that rationale played a role in Mills’ thinking. Mills, not wanting to spend next year fending off extreme proposals from her left flank, could have used up the forecasted surplus in one fell swoop.
That logic eventually lost out to Senate Republican’s desire to assert the independence of the legislative branch and call for public hearings.
Those public hearings will allow lawmakers to consult with the Maine Housing Authority on how best to use the forecasted revenue surplus to ameliorate the impact of high energy costs on Maine families in a more targeted way.
Although the $450 checks and the money for LIHEAP were incorrectly marketed as “emergency” measures, the expiration of Emergency Rental Assistance funding is a problem that will rear its head before the legislature reconvenes in January.
Maine Housing officials have been warning since early this summer that the program was running out of money, but officials in Augusta did not take any action to address the problem.
Now, thousands of Maine families that have had federal help paying rent under the Pandemic Era program will have to pay the full cost of their rent for the first time in more than a year.
That issue will be particularly acute for more than 500 refugee families living in motels, hotels, and shelters in southern Maine. December is the last month for which the federal funding will pay for their stay at those hotels, and people familiar with their accommodations don’t know what will happen on Jan. 1, 2023.
Absent some federal or state plan, there is a potential for mass evictions or a massive rush to municipal governments for General Assistance to keep those people sheltered during the harshest months of Maine’s winter.