In January, Garrett Lojek of Brooks was waiting to have his heating assistance intake appointment in late February. He was keeping his furnace set at 55 degrees and relies on his woodstove to warm up his house more than that. "I just feel bad for the people who have no other supplemental heat," he said. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

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Chip Curry, D-Belfast, represents Waldo County in the Maine Senate. Raegan LaRochelle, D-Augusta, represents the west side of Augusta in the Maine House.

As elected leaders, we are in the privileged position of being our constituents’ advocate at the State House. This means that our neighbors will come to us — by phone, by email or sometimes even in-person — to tell us about the problems they face in their day-to-day lives.

This winter, one of the biggest problems we heard about was the high cost of energy bills. Maine winters are cold, there’s no doubt, but when frigid temperatures overlapped with record-high energy prices, many Mainers were faced with a serious financial burden. We heard too many stories of people needing to choose between paying their heating bill or putting food on the table, or paying their electric bill or paying for their prescriptions. These are heartbreaking decisions no one should have to face.

For Mainers facing this kind of hardship, help is available. One of the most important programs in our state is the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, which is administered by local Community Action Programs. The good news is, thanks to a significant influx of federal dollars, HEAP had more funding than ever. But an outdated, bureaucratic process and chronic staffing challenges at these agencies, combined with increased demand, meant people who reached out for assistance faced long wait times — sometimes months long — just to get the help they needed. That’s not OK, and it’s why we each sponsored bills to update and improve our current system.

Sen. Chip Curry sponsored LD 1966, An Act To Facilitate Access to Heating Assistance. Under this bill, MaineHousing would be required to allow online applications for HEAP. The current process of applying for HEAP, which requires an in-person meeting, has created a bottleneck for applicants. We already have secure online application processes for other assistance programs in Maine. Cutting this red tape just makes sense and will help more Mainers get the help they need when they need it.

Rep. Raegan LaRochelle sponsored LD 2006, An Act To Improve the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program. This bill directs the Maine State Housing Authority to establish the HEAP Administrative Efficiency Fund and to use state-provided funds to improve application waiting and approval times in the short term. It also directs the Maine State Housing Authority to convene a working group to find ways to improve and increase the efficiency of the assistance program. These longer term solutions can be funded as a result of this legislation. Importantly, the working group will include one or more people who have used the program.

We’re proud to report that both of these bills received unanimous, bipartisan support in committee, with an amended version of LD 1966 including an emergency clause to ensure it goes into effect as soon as it’s signed into law. They’ll come before the full Legislature in the coming weeks, and we’re confident they’ll receive the same strong, bipartisan support in the House and Senate. After all, this isn’t about politics; it’s about doing the right thing for the people of Maine.

Let us be perfectly clear, though: Neither of these bills is a silver bullet. Energy policy is complex, and there’s no one legislative solution in Maine that would lower the high prices people are seeing across the world. But we can make it easier for Mainers to access relief. That’s why we’re joining with our colleagues in the House and Senate to pass these and other measures — including LD 2010 and LD 1913. LD 2010, presented by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would offer a tax rebate of $1,000 to residential customers and $2,500 to businesses with high energy usage. This kind of direct relief has the potential to help out a lot of Mainers. LD 1913 will help us weather volatile pricing into the future by creating the Electric Ratepayer Advisory Council, which will review utility rates and come up with a plan to ensure that Maine people will be able to afford their energy bills.

Taken together, these measures will help ensure all Mainers can afford to keep their homes warm and their lights on.