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There was a lot of frustration last week, both in Augusta and around the state, when lawmakers failed to pass a nearly $475 million package of heating aid and other relief. Gov. Janet Mills and other Democratic leaders were able to reach bipartisan agreement with an overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives, but unified opposition from the Senate Republican members present doomed the proposal. At least for now.
We share the frustration about this initial failure. More aid, made possible by a recently projected state revenue surplus and unexpected federal Medicaid money, is absolutely needed at the onset of another cold Maine winter with soaring energy costs.
To us, the most important question now is about how to move forward quickly to finalize a proposal and process that can garner the necessary support for passage. Because as frustrated as some officials in Augusta might be right now, we guarantee there are Mainers on the edge of housing or heating security who feel a lot worse.
It’s collaboration like what we’re seeing from a Republican and Democratic senator that gives us hope for a positive breakthrough in what seems like an otherwise stalled conversation.
On Tuesday, Sens. Rick Bennett and Nicole Grohoski announced a proposed amendment to the heating aid package that would cut roughly in half the overall amount of heating aid that would go out via direct payments to Maine people, while targeting it more to lower income Mainers. It would retain the initial bill’s funding for other measures such as an additional $40 million for the existing Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) that helps people with their heating bills and $21 million for emergency housing assistance, while increasing funding to help Maine community action agencies deliver more emergency fuel assistance from $10 million to $15 million. The two senators also called for a public hearing.
“It’s clear to me, and I think to all of our colleagues in the Legislature, that many of our neighbors are in urgent need of heating and housing relief. And I believe that it is our duty to both help these folks and to act responsibly with state funds,” Grohoski said during a Zoom press conference on Tuesday. She was the lone Senate Democrat to vote with Republicans last week to hold a hearing on the initial proposal, and when that hearing vote failed, she voted in favor of the bill. “The majority of the feedback I’ve been receiving from constituents over the past couple days about this proposal is that the checks are too small for people who really are in need, and too large for others.”
Bennett, a Republican, said during the press conference that their proposal would leave the federal Medicaid funds “untouched to serve chronic funding shortfalls” and later cited record opioid deaths and people on waitlists for various services as examples of other needs.
“There’s so many needs that we have to address, and this approach of spending a half a billion dollars on this emergency needs to be targeted to the emergency,” Bennett said.
Last week, after the package failed in the Senate, we hoped there was an opportunity to make the bill more targeted while moving forward quickly and still following a more traditional legislative process (which typically includes public hearings). The conversation surrounding this amendment is an avenue to do that. It’s not the only avenue, and even its sponsors concede it probably won’t be the final result. But the fact that two senators, one from each party, are rolling up their sleeves and trying to move the ball forward after last week’s impasse is encouraging in itself.
According to the office of Senate President Troy Jackson, he and Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross are working with others to explore options for conducting a public hearing this month.
“There are a lot of unexpected logistics but we are hopeful that we can make it happen soon because this is too important,” Christine Kirby, Jackson’s communications director, said in an email.
We agree, it is too important. This urgent challenge calls for creative scheduling and flexible problem solving.
House Republicans deserve a lot of credit for coming to the table, putting Maine people before some legitimate process concerns, and trying to get something done. From our perspective, raising the income limits so the heating assistance checks went to more people was a mistake. It makes more sense to target more aid to those in greater need. We do realize that changing these limits, however, could erode some Republican support for the bill, which was a negotiated compromise.
Yes, the Mills administration and legislative leaders from both parties already have worked hard to craft the underlying bill. Yes, there was overwhelming support for the initial proposal in the House. But that bill has stalled in the Senate. It will take both houses to pass a bill, and some support from both parties to enact an emergency measure. It will also take leaders — and we don’t just mean those in leadership — trading ideas to get this done. People across Maine are counting on it.