Gov. Janet Mills is set to meet with a top legislative Republican on Tuesday while preparing a heating fuel relief plan that could provide another round of direct assistance to Mainers struggling with rising costs.
The Democratic governor’s office teased a plan that would send “financial relief” to middle-class and low-income Mainers without giving further details. Crafting a deal that can quickly pass after the Legislature convenes in earnest this January will require Republicans to sign on.
It will be the first big test for Mills and the new Democratic-led Legislature after an election in which the global and national issues of high costs and inflation were a major theme. The problem threatens to make for a hard winter in a cold state that remains the most reliant on heating oil. Prices for No. 2 oil are surging near a record high at an average price of $5.71 per gallon statewide as of two weeks ago, with kerosene cresting over $7.
Mills is soliciting feedback on her proposal from incoming legislative leaders, spokesperson Lindsay Crete said. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said last month that he would support new direct payments if the revenue was available. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said he planned on meeting with the governor Tuesday.
“We need a real solution so folks don’t freeze this winter,” Stewart said.
The ultimate proposal could be similar to the round of $850 relief checks sent to most Mainers earlier this year, an idea that began with legislative Republicans and was adopted by Mills. The amounts of the checks grew all spring at a time of surpluses due to federal COVID-19 aid. The nonpartisan Revenue Forecasting Committee will update forecasts on Tuesday.
Rep. Steven Foster, R-Dexter, who sits on the energy committee, said he wanted to know where the money was coming from before he committed to supporting any relief bill. Still, he recognizes that something needs to be done.
“We definitely have people that need assistance,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
While the Maine Center for Economic Policy does not have a specific proposal for relief, it wants to see a proposal targeted at low-income and middle-class Mainers most at risk this winter, said James Myall, an economic policy analyst with the liberal group.
“It could take the form of another round of direct payments,” he said last week. “Those have been a solution that’s relatively simple from an administrative point of view.”
One potential solution being mentioned is an item boosting the use of heat pumps, which run on electricity and can heat and cool homes. The recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act has large tax credits and subsidies for heat pumps that will begin in 2023.
Maine should pair a new preferential electricity rate for heat pump owners with a large outreach and assistance program that leads residents to adopt the devices, argued Tony Buxton, a lobbyist for large power consumers and an ally of the governor.
“Just giving money away to reduce the cost of heating and the cost of electricity doesn’t solve the problem,” Buxton said. “That’s a Band-Aid. We actually have the chance to solve the problem.”
But Foster, whose district encompasses working-class communities outside Bangor, said heat pumps are less advantageous now due to rising electricity costs. He said many older homes in his district required multiple pumps to fully heat due to size, multiplying costs.
“The people I talk to that have heat pumps have become fairly discouraged,” Foster said. “They’re worried about the winter when they really start using them.”
Still, many in the GOP want a solution while being worried about the potential costs. Asked if he supported direct payments, Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a budget committee member, said any proposal should be based around the new revenue forecasts. He would support flexible aid that helps middle-class and lower-income people however they heat.
Work will start when the Legislature convenes on Dec. 7, Millett said, though he said it would seem unlikely that anything would be passed before the beginning of January, noting the need for committee hearings and the upcoming holidays.
Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, an energy panel member, would like to see assistance for low and middle-income people coupled with a moratorium on any utility rate hikes. He believes this problem should “absolutely” bring about a bipartisan solution.
“We have to work together,” he said.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.