AUGUSTA, Maine — Relief checks of $450 are on their way to most Mainers after Gov. Janet Mills quickly signed a heating aid package that was stalled in December by Senate Republicans after the Legislature approved it Wednesday.
The $473 million package was signed by the Democratic governor on the day of her second inauguration after a 114-29 vote in the House of Representatives and 24-10 approval in the Senate. It was the expected conclusion despite several speeches against the bill from Republicans.
Mills and her fellow Democrats leading the Legislature took the same package to a vote in early December, when united Senate Republicans opposed it to keep the emergency measure from passing with the required two-thirds votes in both chambers. They signed on only after Democrats acceded to their demand for a public hearing just before Christmas.
“The state of Maine should have acted between 2010 and 2018 to move us away from reliance on fossil fuels, but we didn’t,” said Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, in a floor-speech reference to the tenure of former Gov. Paul LePage. “Now we have to do something.”
A new round of relief checks dominate the heating aid package. They will go to an estimated 880,000 people, including single tax filers making less than $100,000 and couples making less than $200,000. The state has said it will begin to send out the checks late this month.
Those loose income thresholds were criticized by some lawmakers, including Democrats, but they were included in the deal due to lobbying from House Republicans led by Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor. All but 16 of his members in the lower chamber backed the measure in the December vote, making that part of the deal hard to unwind.
The other major part of the package is $50 million for an existing heating aid program for low-income Mainers that is in danger of running out of funding later this year due to high fuel prices. Another $21 million will go to emergency housing and homeless shelters.
It will be mostly funded by virtually all of a $280 million state budget surplus through the fiscal year ending in June. The rest comes from transfers from programs including Medicaid, which is getting an offsetting increase in federal funds. Some Republicans and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities still criticized that due to long-standing waitlists for services.
Despite lending enough votes to pass the bill, Republicans offered amendments that were shot down quickly by Democrats. Two of them, from Rep. Laurel Libby and Sen. Eric Brakey, both of Auburn, would have rolled the relief-check money into a sales tax holiday, while Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, looked to turn it into a $450 fuel voucher program for all households.
The share of House Republicans opposed to the measure nearly doubled from December, but it won passage after three of the party’s senators — Moore, Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle and Rick Bennett of Oxford — backed it on Wednesday. But Stewart and Bennett offered lengthy critiques of and the leader vowed Republicans would hold Mills accountable.
Libby tried in vain to rally her House colleagues against the measure, criticizing the package for not offering long-term ways to fight high energy costs. She argued lawmakers should cut taxes in response to continued surpluses instead of giving out checks.
“It sets the precedent that we will continue to pass policy that ignores the real issues,” she said of the package.