Maine Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked passage of an emergency bill to provide direct checks and heat and housing assistance to struggling Mainers this winter.
The Senate voted along party lines, with Democrats supporting Governor Janet Mills’ proposed plan and Republicans opposing it. The 21-8 vote fell short of the two-thirds support needed to pass the legislation as an emergency measure so aid can reach Maine households this winter. Six senators were absent.
The House of Representatives passed the legislation earlier Wednesday with more than two-thirds support.
Mills slammed Senate Republicans in a written statement after the vote, but also said she hoped to try again and win their support.
“I am deeply concerned about the impact high energy prices are having on the people of Maine. We need to ease the burden by putting money back in their pockets so they can better meet these energy costs. and ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens can stay warm this winter,” she wrote.
“Tonight a minority of the minority chose to reject this help for the people of Maine,” she wrote. “I urge Senate Republicans to join their fellow Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature in giving this plan the support needed to enact it as an emergency measure, so that we can put this relief between the hands of the people of Maine without delay.”
The centerpiece of the $474 million proposal was a series of checks to nearly 858,000 eligible taxpayers. The $450 checks would cost about $398 million and would be partly funded by a projected surplus for the current fiscal year.
Governor Janet Mills has been negotiating with Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate over the past few weeks. She initially proposed income limits of $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly, but raised those limits to $100,000 and $200,000 at the request of Republicans.
Negotiations continued with leaders and Mills on Tuesday, and each side met several times during the day to talk with members and chart their respective paths.
His proposal also included $50 million for home heating assistance and $21 million for emergency housing.
Republicans – some of whom are new to the Legislative Assembly – have expressed concerns about the bill’s approval process, which goes straight to the floor, without being subject to committee review. That’s because Mills and Democrats believe that aid is urgently needed and the legislature has yet to create a committee.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, delivered a speech after being re-elected Senate President to urge both parties to support the proposal. He said there would be more time over the next two years to debate policy and long-term goals, but that shouldn’t preclude meeting the immediate needs of Mainers.
“We are in the midst of an energy crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since many of us were young,” he said. “This is creating unequivocal difficulties across the state. With temperatures continuing to drop, we cannot afford to waste time studying the issue or debating long-term policy. We don’t need it either. The Mainers need help and they need it now. I believe we need to act quickly before the harsh winter sets in.
Jackson alluded to concessions made by Mills and Democrats, some of whom have privately expressed concerns that Republicans are moving the goalposts.
“I know that passing this legislation on the first day of session is unusual. I understand that,” Jackson said. “But failing to act honestly could have life-threatening consequences for some people in this condition.”
Officials are looking to tap into a projected $283 million surplus projected for the current fiscal year, but that’s not enough to cover the costs of the draft proposal. Further funding would come from $157 million in newly available COVID-19 public health emergency funds.
The winter energy aid proposal also includes $4.4 million to cover a shortfall in the state’s last direct payment to the people, inflation relief. The state originally estimated that 858,000 residents were eligible for those $850 checks, but it was left short when an additional 22,000 eventually qualified.
This story will be updated.
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