Maine state senators from different parties on Tuesday proposed reining in relief payments under a stalled heating aid bill, but it was panned by top Democrats for going against House Republicans’ desire to open payments to more Mainers.
Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, was the only Democrat to vote for a Republican motion to send a $473 million package to a public hearing. Now, she is proposing a new amendment with Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, that they hope can ignite new discussion after a week of stalemate since Senate Republicans voted down the version championed by Gov. Janet Mills.
“Our intention here is to create something new to have a conversation around,” Grohoski said.
Instead of a $450 check for everyone making under $100,000 individually or $200,000 for couples, checks ranging from $275 to $800 per person would go out to those making roughly 300 percent of the federal poverty limit. That is $30,000 a year individually and $60,000 when filing jointly, with those in the lowest income groups getting the most assistance.
That would leave the proposal at a total cost of $298 million, more than 60 percent below the version backed by Mills, legislative Democrats and minority Republicans in the House of Representatives. Senate Republicans’ opposition doomed the measure because it needs two-thirds support in both chambers to pass immediately.
It is unclear how far the proposal will go, especially because it goes in the opposite direction of House Republicans’ negotiated increase in income thresholds. Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, who said early in negotiations that a draft from Mills did not help middle-class Mainers enough, said Tuesday the best path forward was to accede to Senate Republicans’ demands for a public hearing on the measure considered last week.
“House Republicans will work to honor our commitment to families and workers,” Faulkingham said.
Mills spokesperson Scott Ogden noted that the amendment seemed to eliminate those negotiated changes. While he said the present bill wasn’t perfect, it reflected “concessions and consensus” from both parties that allowed it to pass the House 125-16.
“We hope that we can find a path forward that preserves the progress already made,” Ogden said.
The office of Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, cited the same concerns. Spokesperson Christine Kirby said her boss would review the amendment, but she said the broader incoming provisions secured “strong bipartisan support in the House.”
Asked on Monday if that could be an impediment to passing the House, Bennett noted the importance of placing proposals out in the open for debate, saying he was “hopeful it’s constructively received by the leadership.” Grohoski added that her party’s leaders care about helping people who are struggling and she hoped this would help address that goal.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, did not directly address the new proposal in a statement but said she continued to do everything she could to pass the heating aid bill, also referencing middle-income Mainers.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, did not respond to requests for comment, but Bennett said he had informed him of the proposal Tuesday morning.
Grohoski said she doubted the amendment would pass the Legislature in this form, but it addresses concerns that she and Bennett had heard from constituents, namely that the aid was not targeted enough. She said a committee could consider it before the new year and present a bill to the full Legislature when it reconvenes in early January.
The bill would not make changes to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and emergency funding provisions of the Mills-led package, though it does increase the emergency housing funds that would go to community action agencies from $10 million to $15 million.
Bennett also provided a bit of insight into the process on which the negotiations went over the heating aid bill. Echoing what Stewart said Monday, he said any notion that Senate Republicans were ever on board for the original proposal was a mistake, describing negotiations as minimal.
“There was never any buy-in on the Senate Republicans about this that I saw,” Bennett said.
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