Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s top Senate Republican attacked each other Monday after the failure of a heating aid bill that would have sent $450 checks to nearly 900,000 Mainers.
The Democratic governor announced a deal on the issue with legislative leaders last week, only for Senate Republicans to vote down the $473 million package Wednesday. They cited a lack of a public hearing on a measure that had been slated for hasty passage on the same day a new crop of lawmakers was being sworn in.
Mills spokesperson Scott Ogden said Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, had described negotiations around the package inaccurately and said he had not voiced concerns about the lack of public input on the measure until the day before the vote. It amounted to Republicans walking away from a plan they helped craft, Ogden said.
“It’s clear that Senate Republicans did not want to engage as the vote drew closer,” Ogden said. “They simply wanted to say no, and now the people of Maine are paying for it as temperatures drop.”
But Stewart said his caucus could not have walked away because there was never a deal with the governor. He described meetings with Mills the day before as well as “one final plea” on the morning of the vote and accused the governor of “lying” about the negotiations.
“She absolutely knew the votes weren’t there and tried to strong arm them at the last minute,” Stewart said.
While Democrats and Republicans have said they want a deal, it does not look likely until January at the earliest. The harsh language may be a sign of a deep and early partisan divide, although Republicans have been split as well. Some in the Senate have cited a need to check the governor early on, while most in the House voted for the bill last week.
At the State House on Wednesday, Stewart argued that his caucus had asked for “transparency and accountability” in the bill when negotiations began. But he said on Monday that they had been far from extensive, with the first discussions happening only eight days before the vote.
Responding to accusations of minimal negotiations, Mills’ office shot back that they had discussed the bill with him several times. Ogden also called his Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel op-ed on opposing the bill “at best, senseless and, at worst, flat-out wrong.”
Behind the scenes, House Republicans had been pushing for the governor to open aid to higher-income Mainers. Mills acceded to that, opening the program to single income tax filers who made as much as $100,000 last year and $200,000 for couples. That was up from $75,000 and $150,000, respectively, in a draft proposal leaked the week before the vote.
The compromise version passed 125-16 in the House after a speech by Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a longtime lawmaker respected on budgetary matters. House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said he also believed the measure was not perfect but was necessary given high fuel prices.
Calling the bill “a fair compromise,” he said that Mills’ office had never explicitly asked him if his caucus would support the bill. But since he participated in the crafting of the bill, he felt like it was something that they “should” support.
“At the end of the day, they wanted a public hearing,” he said of the Senate Republicans.
Sen. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, declined to discuss his awareness of negotiations as they occurred, directing a reporter to Stewart. He was excused from last week’s vote, but he stood by his caucus’ stance that the bill should have had a public hearing “like all the rest of our bills.” Stewart and other Republicans have also raised concerns about transfers that help fund the bill past a $280 million budget surplus.
Though Republicans do not have enough votes to derail normal legislation in the Democratic-led Legislature, it has an effective veto over emergency legislation that requires a two-thirds majority to take effect immediately. The goal of this package has been to get aid out at winter’s outset. Checks would have begun going out in January, the Mills administration said.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, among the most high-profile opponents of the bill in the Senate, linked his stance to his opposition to many of Mills’ COVID-19 policies, which she implemented after lawmakers granted her sweeping emergency powers in 2020 that Republicans later unsuccessfully tried to rescind.
“This new Legislature must make it clear right now that we are restoring transparency, accountability and public input to the law-making process,” Brakey said.
Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, who voted for the bill, said it wouldn’t be worth coming back before lawmakers reconvene in January if Republicans were still opposed to the bill on process grounds. As he sees rising costs and lowering temperatures in his district, he bemoaned that a plan did not pass.
“I’m very disappointed, in the end, that [the Senate Republicans] made that last-minute choice to oppose,” Tipping said.
Correction: Sen. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, did not cast a vote on the heating aid bill. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.