AUGUSTA, Maine – A sweeping package to deliver $450 relief checks to most Mainers and provide more heating aid failed in the Maine Senate on Wednesday night, sinking a $474 million deal that Gov. Janet Mills had negotiated with legislative leaders.
The measure died in the Senate after receiving overwhelming support in the House earlier Wednesday evening in a vote of 125-16.
The measure required the support of two-thirds of members so it could take effect immediately and the state could start distributing aid in time for a winter heating season dominated by spiking energy prices and limited federal heating aid. But the measure garnered only 21 votes in the Senate, short of the 24 required.
Of the Senate’s 22 Democrats, 21 voted in favor, while Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, was excused. Of the Senate’s 13 Republicans, eight voted against the measure while five were excused.
Supporters said the relief package was a life-or-death matter. But opponents on the right argued it was an unprecedented action that would spend hundreds of millions of dollars without going through the Legislature’s typical process, which includes a public hearing and committee deliberations and votes.
Before rejecting the package as a whole, senators had rejected an effort by Republicans to send the measure to the Legislature’s budget-writing appropriations committee.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, one of the Republicans to vote against the bill, said members of his caucus simply didn’t feel comfortable skipping the process with what he said was a lack of transparency from Democrats, who hold a majority in both legislative chambers.
“There needs to be a hearing on the bill,” Stewart said. “That is going to necessarily involve feedback from the Maine people, which has not yet happened.”
Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was doubtful there would be further movement on the bill, especially not before the Legislature reconvenes in January. He noted that there had already been changes to the bill that GOP senators requested. He saw Republicans’ argument about legislative process as a smokescreen for their opposition to something they never wanted to vote for anyway.
“There’s nowhere to move on this,” Jackson said. “The process was not a normal process, but the process was not a normal situation we were in, either.”
Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, the House Republican leader who pressed during negotiations for more families to receive the relief checks and supported the final package, said after Wednesday’s Senate vote that he was hopeful that the bill would eventually pass.
He noted the governor could call lawmakers in for a special session.
“House Republicans did our part – we made a commitment to families and workers, and we lived up to that commitment today,” Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said.
Opponents including Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, recommended that the bill negotiated with Mills go through committee vetting, with the potential for the whole legislature to pass the measure sometime before the holidays.
“The Legislature is established as a separate branch for a reason,” Brakey said.
Supporters were willing to pass a measure they saw as needed despite not going through the customary process.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a powerful force on budgetary matters in the House, provided a long defense for voting for the bill when it was debated in the House.
“I’m willing to overlook the process for a moment,” Millett said. “I don’t want to come home and say I had an option to do something good and I chose to put it off.”
Jackson gave an impassioned speech for why it should pass. He even said he could support the bill as the person in the room who has had the most fights with Mills.
“Let’s let the campaign go. If you don’t like the chief executive, that’s fine. But nobody threw this on to us,” Jackson said. “This was an opportunity by the administration to do something meaningful for the people of this state.”
The heating aid package was propelled by a state revenue forecast that projected a $280 million budget surplus through mid-2023. It also would have drawn on federal funds for the state.
The cornerstone of the plan would have provided $450 relief checks to Maine taxpayers making up to $100,000, or $900 for couples filing jointly and making up to $200,000. Some 880,000 Mainers would have received checks.
Other components included $40 million for heating assistance for low-income households, $10 million in funds to other households to avert energy crises and $21 million in emergency housing.
Mills placed blame for the measure’s failure on Senate Republicans.
“Tonight, the peoples’ representatives stood on the floor of the peoples’ house and debated the peoples’ business. Counter to the arguments of Senate Republicans, the voices of the people are being heard,” she said in a statement shortly after the measure’s failure. “Unfortunately, it is the peoples’ interests that were not served by tonight’s vote.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Republicans excused from the vote. It was five.