A temporary committee of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted unanimously to to advance a heating and housing assistance bill proposed by Gov. Janet Mills after Mainers weighed in on the necessity of the funds to help people get through the winter amid high prices.
The panel discussed an emergency measure rejected earlier in the month by Senate Republicans, who argued that the bill hadn’t gone through the proper process and pushed for a public hearing, even though the House overwhelmingly passed the bill in a bipartisan vote. Democrats responded by pointing out that with heating prices high and a continuing housing crisis, Mainers need immediate help. However, after Senate Republicans’ intransigence, Mills and Democratic leaders agreed to hold Wednesday’s hearing.
The bill being considered is LD 3, a $474 million proposal put forward by Mills that would use Maine’s budget surplus and other funds on direct checks for heating assistance as well as funding for housing programs. Specifically, the plan would send checks of $450 to a projected 880,000 Mainers. The checks would be income-targeted, but a wide swath of Mainers, including those in upper-income brackets, would receive the money. Those eligible include single filers making less than $100,000, heads of household making less than $150,000 and couples filing jointly making less than $200,000.
After the vote, Mills’ issued a statement thanking the committee for “listening to the concerns of Maine people and for responding with a unanimous, bipartisan vote to recommend passage of the energy relief bill.”
“This measure – while not perfect to everyone, which is often the case in government – is a compromise that reflects concessions and consensus from Democrats and Republicans that will deliver much-needed aid to Maine people in the depths of winter,” Mills said. “I ask the Legislature to follow the lead of the Committee and pass this bill with the strong support needed to enact it immediately upon my signature.”
As Beacon previously reported, while progressive lawmakers have praised some elements of Mills’ plan, many have concerns that checks would go to higher-income Mainers who don’t need the money. Two senators — Nicole Grohoski of Hancock County, a Democrat, and Republican Rick Bennett of Oxford County — put forward an alternative proposal to LD 3 during Wednesday’s hearing that would limit the eligibility for direct checks to lower-income people.
Mills’ plan includes other spending, such as $40 million for the Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps homeowners and renters pay for heating costs. In addition, the measure contains $10 million for the Maine Community Action Partnerships to help that group deliver emergency fuel for people who need it and $21 million meant to aid the Emergency Housing Relief Fund formed by Mills and the legislature earlier this year, which works to prevent people from experiencing homelessness. The measure also provides funding to allow Maine to finish sending out $850 checks to those who have not yet received the last round of direct payments, which were included in a budget deal passed earlier this year.
Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, opened Wednesday’s hearing with an explanation of LD 3 and spent the next hour fielding questions about the bill. Figueroa emphasized that swift action by the legislature on the bill would allow direct checks to go out sometime in January while further delay would mean the funds wouldn’t get to Mainers until later in the winter months.
A wide range of people submitted testimony on the bill, with many in favor of the measure.
Donna Kelley, president of Maine Community Action Partnership, said the legislation is about helping people survive at a time of high prices and cold temperatures.
“All Maine households should have access to basic needs such as a warm, safe, and dry place to be in our Maine winter,” Kelley said. “Please support LD 3 so we can continue to meet the needs of our most vulnerable Mainers this winter.”
Ryan Knipple, assistant director at Preble Street, which works with people experiencing homelessness, added that if the bill isn’t approved, “you will see families and individuals across Maine evicted from their current homes and shelters into the darkest and coldest winter months.”
Mainers struggling with heating costs also spoke in favor of the bill. Sass Borodkin of Skowhegan has had difficulty keeping up with escalating prices. Borodkin’s propane bill was $400 last week, and they expect another high bill before the end of January.
“This is not a sustainable way to get through the cold season, and I could really use this help,” Borodkin said, adding that there isn’t a better way to use the state’s surplus funds than by giving it back to constituents “who are literally looking at freezing to death without some help.”
Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, also backed the bill.
“This package could provide 1,084 at-risk Maine households access to funds necessary to stay sheltered as the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program ends,” she said. “These issues are quite literally a matter of life or death for some people and urgent, bipartisan action by you, the state’s policymakers, is needed.”
During the hearing, several advocates did express concerns that the measure would de-appropriate money going to services that help people with intellectual disabilities, autism, brain injuries and other related conditions. However, Figueroa said while LD 3 would lead to a change in what particular funding is used to pay for such programs, it wouldn’t result in a difference in the amount of funding those programs receive, as federal money would replace the state money lost. However, advocates said that federal money could have been used to provide additional help for home and community based services, which have long been underfunded.
The hearing on LD 3 took place before a temporary panel of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. The Democrats on that committee are Senate President Troy Jackson as the Senate Chair, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross as the House Chair, Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, House Democratic Majority Leader Maureen Terry, House Assistant Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, Rep. Anne Perry, Rep. James Dill, and Rep. Scott Landry.
The Republicans on the committee are Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, House Assistant Leader Amy Arata, Rep. Sawin Millett, and Rep. John Ducharme.