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The proposed heating aid package making its way through the Maine Legislature is not perfect. It is not the exact bill we would craft if we were in charge in Augusta. We still think it should pass when lawmakers return this week.
Here’s the thing: Nobody is in complete control of state government, even with Democrats in charge of both the State House and the Blaine House.
It takes collaboration — across party lines, within parties, between the legislative and executive branches — to get things done. That is especially true with something like this heating assistance proposal, which is an emergency measure requiring two-thirds support in both the Maine House of Representatives and Maine Senate.
Gov. Janet Mills had already been collaborating with lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, as her office developed the package. House Republicans overwhelmingly supported the bill in a Dec. 7 vote after successfully raising the income caps for people who would receive direct heating aid checks of $450.
The proposal stalled, however, due to unified opposition from each of the Senate Republicans present for that vote. Their stated reasons for opposing it included a desire for transparency and a public hearing on the nearly $475 million proposal.
Frustrations and accusations followed that initial failure. A stalemate seemed possible, despite the clear need to help Mainers with heating and housing relief in these cold months — and the recent projection of another state budget surplus.
However, legislative leaders from both parties came together to welcome a creative path forward in these early stages of the new Legislature: the temporary appointment of appropriations committee members to review the bill and take testimony on it. This led to a long committee hearing on Dec. 21, with hours of testimony from the public and the Mills administration. After deliberation between committee members, the bipartisan panel advanced the aid package unanimously.
Critically, Senate Republican leader Trey Stewart voted for it, and said he believed there would be enough support for the measure to pass when it reaches the Senate again.
“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.”
Democratic Rep. Jim Dill of Old Town, a member of the committee, shared his own message of pragmatism before voting to advance the proposal. He said he disagreed with the higher income caps, but wasn’t willing to hold the package up because of it.
“I just want to go on record as personally saying I think the caps are too much, and I would certainly like to see them lowered,” Dill said. “But for the sake of tonight, I’m not going to go down that road.”
Republican House leader Billy Bob Faulkingham added that if he wrote the heating aid bill, it would look different, “but we’ve come together to compromise for the good of the Maine people.”
In other words, lawmakers weren’t ready to let perfect be the enemy of good.
Hopefully, this sets a more collaborative tone for the new Legislature. This should be the start of more bipartisan cooperation.
As raised during the hearing, Maine can’t go from one emergency housing aid cliff to another. Leaders need to fundamentally address crises, not repeatedly delay them. Lawmakers and the governor, in collaboration with communities, must develop a long-term plan. That must include more housing, of all types. (At the same time, the onset of another Maine winter would be the worst moment to let emergency housing aid expire without such a plan in place.)
We’ve seen people say that the Dec. 21 hearing was a waste of time, and that little was learned during the process. We disagree. While it’s true the proposal wasn’t amended — and we also would have liked to see income eligibility tightened for relief checks, so that money could be better targeted to people in greater need — we learned something very important.
We learned that members of the new Legislature are willing to work through political obstacles and frustrations to get things done. It hasn’t always been pretty, and the bill still needs to be approved in both chambers, but the hearing outcome puts the Legislature on that path. That’s a win for pragmatism over politics, and it’s a win for Mainers.