Two state senators – a Republican and a Democrat – proposed a dramatically scaled-back heating and energy assistance package on Tuesday as negotiations continued in hopes of reviving a stalled emergency relief plan.

Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, left, and Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, at the Maine State House in June 2021. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, held a news conference to unveil their proposal, which would target relief checks and other assistance to lower-income households and eliminate eligibility for middle-income families. It would limit direct checks to households earning less than $60,000 for married couples, which is roughly 300% of the federal poverty level.

The proposal is one of several that could emerge from negotiations that have been occurring since last week’s vote, when Republican members of the Senate prevented the bill from getting the two-thirds majority needed to be enacted as an emergency measure.

A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said she is willing to continue working with lawmakers on the package, but worried that the proposal floated Tuesday would change a provision that was key to winning strong bipartisan support in the House. That provision was ensuring that as many taxpayers as possible received refunds.

“The already-passed compromise proposal, while not perfect, was negotiated by Republicans and Democrats, reflects concessions and consensus from both parties, and was overwhelmingly approved by most of the Legislature,” spokesperson Scott Ogden said. “We hope that we can find a path forward that preserves the progress already made.”

The proposed amendment would reduce by almost half the total spending on direct relief checks, provide immediate relief on a sliding scale to those with a high energy burden and increase emergency funds for others in need to be delivered through local community action agencies, Bennett and Grohoski said.


It would leave untouched the roughly $160 million in Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) funds so they may assist the needs they are intended for – such as mental health, nursing homes, developmental services and services for brain injured, they said. And emergency housing and other fuel assistance would remain in the bill.

“I have heard from many of the people I represent who believe that the emergency relief ought to be targeted to those in need,” Bennett said. “Spending our surplus accounts dry leaves no money to deal with other pressing issues such as our opioid epidemic, our failing nursing homes, and the dire shortage of direct care workers for people who have been promised services.”

Helping Mainers cope with high heating and energy costs emerged as one of the top issues of the last campaign cycle, but Senate Republicans voted last week to block a proposal that Mills had negotiated with legislative leaders from both parties.

Mills’ proposal included a round of $450 checks to individuals earning up to $100,000 and $900 checks to married couples filing jointly earning less than $200,000. The proposal also included $50 million for home heating assistance and $21 million for emergency housing assistance to prevent evictions.

Mills originally wanted lower income limits for the checks in order to target the aid to those most in need. But at Republicans’ request she agreed to increase the limits by $25,000 for individuals and $50,000 for married couples filing jointly.

House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, declined to comment on specific components of the proposal unveiled Tuesday, including the drastic cut in the number of people eligible to receive checks. But he hoped leadership would find a way to hold a hearing soon.


“The best way to proceed is to have a public hearing,” Faulkingham said. “I always felt like we should have a public hearing, but the bill was up in front of us that day and we had to cast a vote.”

The emergency measure needed two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate. House Republicans joined Democrats to approve the proposal by a 125-16 margin last Wednesday, the first day of the 131st Legislature. But Senate Republicans blocked the proposal, with all eight members present, including Bennett, voting against it. Five Republicans and one Democrat were absent.

Senate Republicans said they withheld support because they wanted to hold a public hearing on the proposal. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that was impractical given that while assistance is needed immediately, the new legislative committees won’t be established until later this month, pushing any hearing into January.

A spokesperson for Jackson said he hadn’t seen details of the proposed amendment but had some initial concerns.

“President Jackson hasn’t had a chance to formally review the proposal but is hopeful it signals Sen. Bennett’s support for some sort of heating relief package,” spokesperson Christine Kirby said. “However, he has concerns that the exclusion of provisions required to get a strong bipartisan vote in the House will jeopardize any heating relief package.”

Kirby said there have been ongoing discussions about passing an emergency bill before January, saying “details will be announced in the coming days.” She added that the Legislature can only reconvene before Jan. 4 with a majority vote of each caucus in each chamber.


House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, provided a written statement indicating she is committed to getting the original package passed as soon as possible.

“While it is unfortunate that eight Senate Republicans were able to hold up a bipartisan package that addressed these very concerns last week, largely based on concerns around the process, I remain steadfast in my commitment to passing L.D. 1 and putting the needs of low- and middle-income Mainers first,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, did not respond to an interview request Tuesday.


The proposed amendment offered by Grohoski and Bennett would send checks to the nearly 399,500 individuals earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The income eligibility limit varies depending on how many people are in the household.

Their proposal would provide checks of $800 per person for married couples in households below the federal poverty level of roughly $20,000; $400 checks per person for married couples in households at 200% of federal poverty level, or roughly $40,000; and $275 checks per person for married couples in households up to 300% of federal poverty level, or roughly $60,000.


That’s far fewer than half of the nearly 860,000 individuals who would have received checks under the original compromise between Mills and the House Republicans.

The cost of the amended proposal would be about $210.6 million, a reduction of more than $184 million, Bennett and Grohoski said.

Pinning checks to the federal poverty level complicates the program because the income eligibility limits vary depending on the size of the family.

The proposal, which is funded with surplus revenue, would maintain the funding levels for LIHEAP, emergency funding and the additional money needed to payoff the last round of $850 checks.

Bennett and Grohoski said they have not yet had detailed discussions with their respective leadership, or the governor.

When asked why Mills and legislative leaders should accept their proposal when the original bill had strong bipartisan support and was blocked by only 13 Republicans, Bennett stressed that Senate Republicans never said they would support the original bill.



The Bennett-Grohoski proposal also faces the same procedural issues as the previous proposal. Bennett and Grohoski said they would like their compromise to be considered during a public hearing, along with the governor’s compromise and any other ideas legislators may have.

“I personally welcome all the ideas and I want them all on the table so we can solve this problem together,” Grohoski said.

Grohoski said their proposal also is meant to assure the public that work on a relief package continues, despite last week’s vote.

“My hope is that, in doing this, we’re just assuring the public frankly that we’re still on the job,” she said. “Not just Sen. Bennett and I, but everybody in the Legislature is thinking about this problem and trying to find solutions. Hopefully, we will come to a solution quickly. I do think this is something we could resolve at the end of the year or when we come into session on Jan. 4.”

The average price statewide for heating oil, which had crested at $5.92 per gallon in May and had been $5.71 a gallon as recently as Nov. 14, has subsided somewhat and was at $4.74 a gallon as of Dec. 5, according to the Governor’s Energy Office.

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