A top Democrat in the Maine Legislature said Wednesday that his party wants to hold a hearing on a stalled heating aid bill in a key development that could secure support from Senate Republicans who voted down a $473 million package last week.
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has been working with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, to explore options for some sort of public hearing or forum before January, Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby said in a Wednesday statement.
“We’ve run into a number of unexpected logistics to sort out but remain hopeful that we can make it happen soon because this is too important,” Kirby said.
It is unclear exactly what form that hearing would take, but Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle insisted on public input since opposing the measure that would send $450 checks to nearly 900,000 Mainers last Wednesday. Most House Republicans backed it after winning an increase in the number of people receiving checks.
Stewart saw Wednesday’s development as positive news, saying he was “glad to see they’re finally moving in the right direction” although he first heard about the Democrats’ efforts from a reporter.
“It’s sounding like progress,” he said.
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A Ross spokesperson declined to comment, but House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham said he had spoken to both Ross as well as the office of Gov. Janet Mills while noting his own support for a committee hearing.
“I am optimistic we will hold a public hearing on the proposal soon,” Faulkingham said.
The bill needs 24 votes to meet the two-thirds requirement for emergency legislation to pass the Legislature. If all 22 Democrats vote for it, it would require at least two Republican senators to come on board. Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, who announced her own proposal on Tuesday alongside Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, on Tuesday, also supported a hearing.
Jackson downplayed the possibility of holding a hearing on the night of last week’s vote, saying he had little faith that Republican senators would support the bill if one was held. But the response to the Grohoski-Bennett proposal showed that a hearing may be the best path forward, with House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, saying it was.
Senate Republicans expressed few policy concerns with the package that they voted down last week. Along with the relief checks, it would provide $71 million in low-income heating and homelessness aid. It will be mostly funded by a $280 million revenue surplus, but it also includes transfers from health care programs that are seeing increased federal funding.
Top lawmakers have not yet announced committee assignments for the 2023 session, throwing a procedural hurdle in front of Senate Republicans’ demand. Stewart said Wednesday that he had provided Jackson with a preferred list of Republican budget committee members last week.
Sen. Anne Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, praised party leaders’ move, calling it “a very necessary thing.” Beebe-Center voted against establishing a hearing process one week ago, but that was before the impasse in the Senate threatened to delay aid across the state.
“This is something that needs to be dealt with,” Beebe-Center said. “We need some sort of unity in the Senate about this.”