The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
The failure of LD 1 in the Legislature on Wednesday can’t be the final word on additional heating assistance for Mainers this winter. The rejection of the bill by Senate Republicans, while frustrating, gives lawmakers an opportunity to improve the bill to make it more targeted, and, if time allows, to follow a more traditional legislative process.
Wednesday’s rejection of LD 1 cannot be an excuse for inaction, so lawmakers must set their frustrations aside and work together to find a way to quickly send more heating assistance to the people who need it before winter fully sets in.
We had some concerns about the bill. For one, the income guidelines are too high, which means the $450 checks that were included in the bill would have gone to people who didn’t need the assistance. Under LD 1, the checks would have gone to individuals earning up to $100,000 a year. Maine’s median household income was $63,182 in 2021.
At the same time, however, it was Republican legislative leaders who asked for a higher income threshold. The governor’s office had originally proposed a cap of $75,000.
So, it is frustrating to have Republican legislative leaders negotiate details of the bill with the governor’s office and Democrats only to have eight Republican senators — including the Senate’s Republican leaders Trey Stewart and Lisa Keim — vote against it. Six senators, five of them Republicans, were tallied as excused from votes on the bill, even though Wednesday was the day that members of the Legislature were sworn into office. Four of the Republican senators participated in activities earlier in the day on Wednesday, but were reported to have commitments in the evening, when the vote took place.
The Senate vote was 21-8, but the measure needed two-thirds support to be enacted on an emergency basis. The bill easily passed the House on a vote of 125-16. Republican House leaders Billy Bob Faulkingham and Amy Arata voted for the measure.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a respected voice on budgetary matters in Augusta, provided a long — and persuasive — explanation of his reasoning for voting for the bill when it was debated in the House.
He said the need for the emergency heating relief was clear when people are paying twice as much as they did last year for heating fuel. The sources of funding — mainly unexpected state revenue and unexpected federal Medicaid funding — are sound, and the spending is properly targeted, he said.
The bill is not perfect, Millett said, and it didn’t go through the typical committee process, which he said could take a month. But, he said, because of the importance of the bill, “I’m willing to overlook the process for a moment.”
The question then, Millett told fellow lawmakers is: “Do I want to go back home and say ‘I had an option to do something good and I chose to put it off’?”
Because of the Senate vote, lawmakers did put off doing something good.
On Thursday, without acknowledging the irony, Maine Senate Republicans said via Twitter that, in addition to more transparency, they wanted to make sure the heating funds “reach those who are most vulnerable.” This is a reversal of pushing for a higher income cap in the bill, but it does give lawmakers an opening for a compromise.
We agree that the money should be targeted to those with the greatest need for help in paying their heating bill or staying out of the cold. Lawmakers can do that by directing more of the assistance money to existing heating aid programs.
In addition to the $450 checks, LD 1 also included an additional allocation of $40 million to the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program and $10 million to Maine Community Action Partnerships to help them deliver more emergency fuel assistance. Directing additional money to these programs makes sense because they already have eligibility criteria and are in contact with many of the Mainers most in need of assistance with their heating bills. The measure also included $21 million in emergency housing funds.
We agree with Republicans that legislation like this should generally go through the regular legislative process, which includes public hearings, committee discussions and opportunities to improve the bill. However, because Wednesday was the first day of a new Legislature, no committees have been seated yet. That won’t happen until later this month.
We also agree with Millett that, given high electricity and heating fuel prices as we enter winter, there is a need to move quickly to get more assistance to the people who need it.
Many lawmakers campaigned on a pledge to do something about high prices, especially for heating. They should fulfill that pledge by finding a way to resurrect the best parts of LD 1 and to quickly put them into action.