Opinion: Heating and housing relief package can’t wait until January

The Maine State House in Augusta. | Photo: Beacon

Last week, the Maine legislature voted on a $474 million emergency heating and housing relief bill proposed by Governor Mills in consultation with Democratic and Republican leaders. While the bill got strong bipartisan support in the House, it failed to pass the Senate by the necessary margin due to opposition from Republican Senators, all of whom either voted against the bill or were not present for the vote.  

In voting against the bill — which would have funded assistance programs for Mainers with low income as well as sending $450 checks to most adults — Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart said his caucus wanted a public hearing before any vote. Because the legislature is not due to return until early January to begin their work in earnest, a public hearing and another vote are unlikely to happen before the new year. This means a critical delay in getting money to people in need for filling up oil tanks and ensuring vulnerable Mainers aren’t evicted from emergency housing.  

There is ample evidence that relief is needed. According to data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, four in ten Mainers are feeling “very stressed” about recent price increases. Heating costs have seen particularly big increases, due to the war in Ukraine, reduced refining capacity in the wake of the pandemic, and profit-seeking by oil and gas companies. In the wake of these price increases, people are cutting back on heating costs — one in four Mainers say they are trying to spend less on energy and utilities because of inflation. Unfortunately, for many people that comes on top of existing hardship. Last winter, before the increase in oil and gas prices, one in six Maine adults said they regularly couldn’t pay their energy bill. This winter will be even worse.

The housing situation is also desperate for many Mainers, especially renters or people looking to rent. According to the Household Pulse Survey, nearly half of all renters have seen a rent increase of at least $100 a month over the past month, including one in six who have seen increases of more than $250 a month. And even before emergency rental assistance expired, almost 12,000 Mainers reported being behind on their rent. Without additional help from the Maine legislature, this number will only increase, and many people will be evicted.

The proposal put forward by Governor Mills would have benefited around 85% of Maine adults across the state. While MECEP made the case for better targeting of benefits, the reality is that more than 330,000 constituents of the Republican Senators who either voted against the relief bill or did not vote at all would have received almost $150 million in direct payments.  

The need is clear. The impact is clear. There is no reason to delay the Governor’s heating and housing relief bill until January. Legislators should come together at the earliest opportunity and pass legislation that delivers aid to Mainers who will be suffering this winter. 

This post originally appeared at the Maine Center for Economic Policy blog.

About James Myall

Avatar photoJames is a policy analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy. He holds a master’s degree in ancient history and archaeology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and is a candidate for a master’s degree in public policy and management from the University of Southern Maine (USM). He has previously served as coordinator of the Franco-American Collection and an adjunct professor of American history and government at USM, Lewiston-Auburn College.

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