Ten years ago, I had a problem many Mainers can relate to: high heating costs. The heating system in my home was old, and just maintaining a livable temperature was costing us an arm and a leg. My husband and I were both working, but with three small children, it was still a challenge to keep up with all our expenses – especially the nearly $300 Central Maine Power bill that came every month because of our inefficient heating system.

Fortunately, our annual tax refund went a long way to help us stay warm. That is because my family qualified for a few hundred extra dollars through the earned income tax credit.

One of the most sensible elements of our tax code, EITC gives a much-deserved tax refund to working people who still have a hard time making ends meet. Without EITC, my family would have struggled to afford heating our home in the last cold months of winter.

In 2016, the federal EITC distributed a total of $212 million, with a portion of these funds going to one out of every seven Maine households. That money helps working Mainers pay for things such as rent, groceries, child care, transportation and utilities. Just as it helped my family stay warm, these funds help people meet their most basic needs.

EITC is so effective that 29 states, including Maine, have created their own state-level EITCs to build on the federal credit’s success. Unfortunately, as Mainers’ cost of living continues to rise, our EITC is falling behind. Nearly half of Mainers could not afford a $400 emergency expense, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, so it is clear that many families are still scraping by.

Tied with Louisiana and Oklahoma, Maine has the most limited EITC in the nation, with an average benefit of just over $100. For most working families who are struggling to pay their bills, that is not enough to move the needle.

We can lift up our working families by expanding and modernizing our state EITC. I have introduced legislation, L.D. 1491, to replace the Maine EITC with a larger credit available to even more working people. It is called the Maine Work Credit, and it will improve Maine’s current credit in four common-sense ways.

First, it will give a bigger break to low-income families. The current state EITC is worth just 5 percent of the federal credit. The Maine Work Credit increases the maximum benefit, up to 30 percent of the federal EITC for families with children, and 100 percent of the much smaller federal credit available to childless adults.

Second, the Maine Work Credit would be available to more young adults and middle-class households. The Maine Work Credit would extend the EITC’s benefits into the middle class, giving more working families the boost they need. All families with children will receive credit for income earned up to $55,000. Young, childless adults currently ineligible for the Maine EITC would receive credit for wages up to $27,000.

Third, the Maine Work Credit would assist Mainers who work hard and contribute significantly to our state, but are not receiving paychecks. In my proposal, these unpaid individuals, such as students and caregivers, would be guaranteed a minimum Maine Work Credit equal to half the maximum benefit.

Finally, my bill would enable Maine to distribute state tax credits for low-income families on a regular basis throughout the year, rather than as one lump sum during tax season. My bill would create a study to move us toward a system where Mainers could choose to receive their refundable tax credits as monthly or quarterly payments. I call it a “cost of living refund,” because it will help families keep up with expenses throughout the year.

If the Maine Work Credit had been in place 10 years ago, it could have helped my family replace our outdated heating system. Instead of helping us pay our high electric bill for a few months, it would have led to years of energy savings.

The Maine Work Credit will reach one-quarter of Maine’s households, making it easier for the working people who power our economy to keep their heads above water. Families, communities and our entire state will be better off for it.