Democratic Gov. Janet Mills wants state lawmakers to approve her plan to spend nearly half a billion dollars in taxpayer money without first holding public hearings.
But some Republican lawmakers say they won’t support Mills’ request to pass the spending package on an emergency basis, as she has requested.
To pass as an emergency bill, Mills would need two-thirds of lawmakers to vote in favor.
That means Senate Republicans have enough votes to force public hearings for the spending proposal before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
As initially reported by The Maine Wire, the spending package includes more checks for Maine residents, money for two home heating assistance programs administered by the Maine Housing Authority, and funding to continue paying rent for some households that have been benefitting from the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance program.
Mills has said she wants lawmakers to pass her spending plan right after new lawmakers are sworn in on Wednesday.
“The Governor urges the Legislature to pass the plan on December 7, 2022 – the date of the convening of the First Regular Session of the 131st Maine Legislature – with the 2/3 support needed to enact it as an emergency measure,” the Blaine House said in a press release Tuesday night.
All told, Mills wants to spend $474 million: $283 million would come from forecasted increases in the state budget surplus, $157 million would come from leftover federal COVID-19 dollars, and $34 million in money leftover from the previous legislative session.
Mills’ communications office did not respond to a request for comment on whether she would support public hearings for the bill, but state house sources said her office has communicated resistance to the idea.
Senate Republicans appear to be coalescing in support of sending the bill to public hearings rather than rubber-stamping Mills’ plan.
“The Governor is entitled to submit any proposal for consideration,” said Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin).
“I will not, however, vote to pass a half billion spending package without a public hearing and legislative vetting process,” he said.
Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) agreed.
“I can only speak for myself, but I believe spending half a billion dollars requires a public hearing,” he said.
One of the key issues that hearings would elucidate is whether the additional funding for heating assistance programs would actually have an impact on this heating season.
The program has already been funded by the federal government, and Maine Housing recently touted the large number of applications it had successfully processed for the LIHEAP program already this year.
Maine Housing hasn’t said publicly that it needs additional funding to support either of the heating aid programs it administers, but it has been warning since June that the Emergency Rental Assistance program would run out of money in November.
With the expiration of those federal funds last month, December is the last month for which thousands of Maine families will receive help covering rent payments.
That includes more than 500 refugee families who are living in hotels and motels in southern Maine.
People familiar with the accommodations of these refugee families say no one from state government has communicated with them about the future of the program.
Without additional funding, those families could potentially face eviction at the start of January.
Several longtime Augusta politicos couldn’t remember a legislative proposal of this magnitude passing the State Legislature without first going through the hearing process.