February 10

State House Notebook: Filling the gaps in the Republican attack on Michaud’s farm bill vote

Also: Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Troy Jackson tangle again.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Republican Governors Association and the Maine Republican Party last week issued a pair of scathing news statements and a fundraising appeal criticizing U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for his recent vote supporting the federal farm bill.

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U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud

2013 File Photo / The Associated Press / Clarke Canfield

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In particular, the Republican governors and the Maine party focus on a provision in the 956-page bill that includes a fee increase on home heating oil.

“Does Maine really need a governor who thinks you don’t pay enough to heat your home, or who doesn’t think about the tens of thousands of elderly and low-income Mainers struggling to get by this winter?” read a release by the Maine Republican Party.

From the Republican governors: “The recent string of polar plunges and extremely cold weather has placed an added burden on many family budgets, especially when it comes to heating their homes. It is shocking that want-to-be governor and liberal Washington, D.C., congressman Mike Michaud would vote to increase the fees on home heating oil at this time. The working families of Maine can least afford to pay for this onerous tax.”

Both releases leave out some key details and context.

For starters, the farm bill provision prohibits oil companies from passing on the two-tenths of 1 cent fee to customers, or in this case, Maine families. The prohibition is on page 938 of the bill. It’s also in the Washington Times story referenced as a source for the Republican governors’ release.

Neither of the Republican releases mentions this nuance, nor another little fact: 162 House Republicans voted for the farm bill and 63 Republicans voted against it, while 103 Democrats opposed the farm bill and 89 voted for it.

In other words, “liberal” Michaud voted for a farm bill that a majority of House Republicans supported and a majority of Democrats opposed.

And then there’s this from BuzzFeed: The Republican Governors Association is running a similar ad in Pennsylvania against Democratic U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who is challenging Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this year. The problem is that Corbett supports the farm bill and in a Feb. 4 press statement urged its passage.

Now, back to that fee and the bill provision that says it can’t be passed on to customers: Matthew Gagnon, a Mainer who works for the Republican Governors Association, tweeted last week that the fee pass-on prohibition was unenforceable and designed to give cover for lawmakers who voted for it. That defense is backed by the Heritage Foundation.

That may be true. So how much of a hit could oil companies deliver to their customers? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average Maine home uses between 800 and 900 gallons of heating oil a year. Multiplying the higher estimate of 900 gallons by two-tenths of 1 cent shows a Mainer’s average annual oil bill would increase by $1.80.

The fee funds the National Oilheat Research Alliance, which is supposed to research and develop energy-efficient heating equipment. NORA, as it’s called, was authorized in 2000 under Democratic President Bill Clinton and reauthorized under Republican President George W. Bush.

There’s some debate over whether NORA has fulfilled its mission. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said NORA needed more oversight. The reason: In 2008, NORA and its state affiliates spent 50 percent of the $318.5 million subsidy on “consumer education,” while spending much less, about 8 percent, on the research and development that’s central to its mission.

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