AUGUSTA, Maine — After Democrats agreed to a key demand for a public hearing, the top Republican in the Maine Senate voted to advance a heating aid package, paving the way for passage when the Legislature convenes early next month.

Two weeks after Senate Republicans voted down a heating aid bill because they said it needed a hearing, they got one that lasted more than five hours, with Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, sitting along with other party leaders on that committee that advanced the measure unanimously Wednesday.

Gov. Janet Mills’ budget commissioner, Kirsten Figueroa, opened with a strong defense of the bill largely crafted by the governor. The centerpiece, $450 relief checks for most Mainers, could go out in late January if the Legislature approves it upon reconvening Jan. 4, she said.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, the only member on the committee from the caucus that voted down the bill two weeks before, actively questioned Figueroa. But in the evening, he agreed to the same package his caucus voted down while saying too much of the money comes from underfunded programs.

“We understand the emergency,” Stewart said. “That’s why we’re willing to swallow a bunch of provisions that are not favorable towards us in terms of what we would do.”

Roughly $280 million comes from an expected state surplus, while the rest comes from transfers within the state budget, including Medicaid funds. Those programs are getting increased federal funds that offset the transfers, something Democrats have highlighted in touting the package.

The vast majority of the dozens who testified at the public hearing supported the measure, which also sets aside $71 million for other heating and housing aid programs, including $21 million for emergency housing assistance with money for a key federal program ending soon.

“I had a woman with cancer call the other day and say, ‘I haven’t turned my stove on yet. I need to buy my meds,’” said Kara Hay, the CEO of Penquis, a Bangor-area social services agency.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Trey Stewart appears during a public hearing on Legislature’s heating aid bill in the State House on Wednesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

But there were also critics who questioned whether checks should go to people in households making as much as $200,000 per year. Income thresholds were pushed up slightly due to lobbying from House Republicans who voted with Democrats for the measure earlier this month.

Often mentioned were waitlists for Mainers with autism and intellectual disabilities, many of whom have long gone without needed services. Lisa Wesel of Bowdoinham, whose 26-year-old daughter has been waiting for them, said while increased federal funding makes transfers look like “a wash,” it does not feel like one.

“For families like mine, this is the latest in a series of clear messages from the state that funding for people with disabilities is a very low priority,” she said.

Figueroa said the biennial budget was the best avenue for longer-term changes and noted steps the state has taken to address lists, saying doing something systemic in this measure puts the state at financial risk. Mills had declined to comment on the budget hearing earlier in the day after a Hanukkah ceremony at the State House.

One man who opposed the bill asked Jackson if he was willing to wage his leadership spot on the checks going out by mid-February. Jackson said he didn’t know if he had the votes, but if he did, he said he would be willing to do that.

Ryan Knipple, the assistant director of Preble Street, praised the parts of the bill helping homeless shelters including one the group runs in Portland, saying policymakers “need to make sure these people don’t fall through the cracks.”

Proposed changes to the measure were largely set aside by lawmakers, including a proposal from Sens. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, who wanted to cut middle-class checks and the size of the package while sending more to low-income Mainers. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, wanted to allow Mainers to save money tax-free to pay for heat.

Democrats left Wednesday’s meeting promising to do more to fund key health care services, saying it would be a priority for the Mills administration. Republicans vowed to hold the administration accountable on that point.

“I think we all have stuff in here we don’t like,” Jackson said. “But it’s about priorities. Right now, the priority is making sure people in this state have the best chance to heat their homes and stay warm this winter.”

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...