A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
A rare December hearing comes to the State House on Wednesday after legislative Democrats met a key demand from Senate Republicans to hold one on the $473 million heating aid package.
Senate Republicans rejected it earlier this month, while House Republicans backed the bill. After bemoaning the delay of the package, which is headlined by $450 checks going to most Mainers, leading Democrats are betting that the hearing will clear the path for a deal.
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, told WVOM on Monday that if lawmakers can make a deal Wednesday, the measure can pass when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 4 and checks could be sent within another month. The big question now is whether those holdout Senate Republicans are going to try to win anything in an eventual deal.
House Republicans backed the package after Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor got Mills and Democrats to increase the number of Mainers getting checks. Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, has flagged some policy concerns with transfers from other areas of the state budget, but he has mostly focused on process by saying the measure needs a hearing to gather input.
Some of his members have come up with their own ideas. An amendment offered up by Sens. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, would drastically shrink the number of relief checks while keeping money for other aid programs in place. It has seemed so far to be a nonstarter because House Republicans wanted more checks and not less. Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, this week suggested allowing Mainers to set aside tax-free income to pay for heating fuel, similar to health savings accounts.
Brakey did not sound like he would insist on inserting that into a heating aid deal, telling WVOM on Tuesday that he would submit it as a standalone measure this year if that happens. But he also said he has heard of alternative ideas to the relief checks, including vouchers for heating fuel or a promise by the state to reimburse companies directly for fuel purchased. This could indicate that members have more than just procedural concerns.
All of the legislative leaders, including Jackson, Stewart, Faulkingham and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, will sit on the special version of the budget committee holding the hearing on Wednesday. They will be briefed by Kirsten Figueroa, Gov. Janet Mills’ budget commissioner, on how the bill is funded and then by other state officials on the housing programs.
One of the members, Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, thought it could go into the late night and expected lots of testimony capped with negotiations between members. When asked if he thought a deal would quickly come by early January, the moderate member previewed Democrats’ argument if the impasse persists.
“This is what they want. We’re giving them what they want,” Landry said of Senate Republicans and their demand for a hearing. “Shame on them if they don’t [agree to a deal].”
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.