The Maine Legislature is set to pass Gov. Janet Mills’ massive $473 million spending bill after Senate Republicans forced the proposal into public hearings before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
The bulk of the bill’s spending — $398 million — will go toward one-time checks for Maine residents. Although Mills’ communication staff have marketed the measure as a “winter heating aid package,” the money can be spent on everything from lobster to fentanyl.
Mills asked the Legislature to pass the bill on an emergency basis. Doing so would allow the provisions to take effect immediately, but it also requires two-thirds support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In an unprecedented move, Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and House Speaker Rachel Ross (D-Portland) attempted to have the bill approved the very same day new lawmakers were sworn in.
Although most Republicans in the House acquiesced in support the bill on its first vote, Senate Republicans unified in opposition to the process behind the bill, a move they said was intended to force public hearings.
Thanks to the two-thirds requirement for emergency proposals, Republicans had a small amount of leverage to negotiate with, but they earned little in the way of concessions following Wednesday’s public hearing.
One proposal that made it into the final package will lift the prohibition on non-low sulfur fuel oil so that the product can be imported from Canada. That move is intended to boost the supply of home heating oil as winter bears down on New England.
The dynamic around the 131st Legislature’s first official act is one Republicans will have to get used to over the next two years, as the Republican Party failed to reclaim majorities in either House.
Despite a handful of attempts by lawmakers in both parties to modify the bill, the final version looks nearly identical to what the governor original proposed at the beginning of December.
The money for the bill will come from federal Medicaid dollars and forecasted future state revenue.
Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) worked with Sen. Nicole Grohsoky (D-Hancock) on a compromise measure that would have reduced total spending in the bill. The amendment the pair offered would also have left federal Medicaid money untouched.
The new spending also includes a $71 million transfer to the Maine State Housing Authority, which administers home heating and rent relief welfare programs. $50 million of that money will go toward the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). $21 million will go toward paying rent for Mainers and non-citizens who had been benefitting from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program, which ran out of money this month.
The rental assistance funding will ensure that roughly 300 asylum seeker, refugee, and illegal alien families in southern Maine can continue to stay at hotels and motels through the winter. More than 10,000 U.S. citizens will also be affected by the continuation of the program.
At the hearing for the bill on Wednesday, representatives from the non-profits in Maine that will administer the more than $71 million in housing and heating assistance testified in favor of the package.
Although the money will be transferred first the Maine Housing, it will be handed off to the so-called “Community Action Projects” across the state. The CAP non-profits will handle eligibility screening and make sure applicants get the money.
Penquis CAP CEO Kara Hay spoke in support of the bill.
“Our Maine people need help, and they need help now,” she said, adding that Penquis CAP clients are “deeply afraid of literally freezing to death this winter.”
In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax documents are publicly available Hay made more than $210,000 for her work at the non-profit.
Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) made his pitch for a different approach to providing heating aid. Rather than direct cash payments, Brakey said the state should create tax free savings accounts so Mainers could save up funds for heating season. The accounts would work similar to Health Savings Accounts and there would be restrictions on how the money can be spent, he said.
“Winter comes to Maine every year,” said Brakey.
“Rather than reacting from crisis to crisis with only short-term relief, I believe we should also help Maine families prepare for future winters by empowering them to save their own money tax-free for energy needs,” he said.
Brakey’s pitch for Maine Heating Accounts (MHAs) didn’t make the final bill.
One Mainer who spoke at the hearing was so enamored with the righteousness of the legislation that she burst into song.
Elizabeth Capone-Newton, an administrative specialist at the University of Southern Maine, delighted the hearing attendees with a moving rendition of Brandi Carlile’s “The Story.”