Lobbyists, legislators, partisan staff and Maine state employees listen to Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa testify about a proposed heating aid bill during a special budget committee hearing in Augusta on Wednesday. Approximately 50 people were present when the committee commenced its hearing. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A special budget committee of state lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend passage of a $473 million emergency heating and energy relief bill that would include $450 checks to most taxpayers.

The proposal also would provide tens of millions of dollars in heating aid for low- and middle-income households and millions more for emergency housing and shelter. This winter’s heating and energy prices – as well as inflation generally – are expected to stretch or exceed household budgets and deplete existing home heating assistance programs.

The recommendation by the temporary budget-writing committee composed of eight Democrats and five Republicans came after a more than five-hour public hearing and a 90-minute caucus by each party, breaking an impasse that emerged earlier this month. The full Legislature is expected to take up the proposal on Jan. 4.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, originally wanted more time to speak with his caucus, which was unanimous in blocking the bill on Dec. 7. But once the eight Democrats on the committee forced a work session, Stewart, who took 90 minutes to speak to his members, returned and predicted the bill had enough support to pass, since the bill received the public hearing they had requested.

“We understand the emergency,” he said. “That’s why we’re willing to swallow a bunch of provisions that are not favorable towards us, in terms of what we would do. But it has to get done and we understand that.”

He added, “I believe we will have a product that on the 4th will pass. I don’t know if it will pass unanimously.”


Lawmakers, advocates and citizens overflowed the 70 seats inside a State House hearing room Wednesday afternoon to weigh in. Additional people provided comments remotely.

Most of the speakers urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying it is the easiest and quickest way to provide immediate help to people who are in need, even though the bill may not be perfect. Some urged lawmakers to lower the income guidelines for refunds.

Opponents, however, criticized the bill as a giveaway to taxpayers that will limit lawmakers’ ability to address other problems this session. They also questioned why tenants whose rent includes heat and electricity should receive heating assistance, instead of it going to the landlord.


Lawmakers spent more than an hour questioning administrative officials. Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, repeatedly stressed the one-time nature of the allocation and that no existing programs would face cuts or loss of services.

“This funding is not ongoing,” Figueroa said. “It is one-time, and thus should not be used to fund services that are more appropriately funded in the budget.”


In response to concerns about placing people without homes in hotels, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior housing adviser, said the administration is planning to use $6 million to fund rent relief applications received before the program closed in September.

Payne said the additional $15 million would be used for emergency shelters, warming centers throughout the state, including Aroostook County, and hotels as a last resort.

Hotel funding will expire at the end of April, he said.

“Hotels are not a sustainable solution,” Payne said. “We have already begun that conversation with our partners on the ground to help them understand now that, come May 1, there is not going to be money for hotels and they’re going to need to come up with local initiatives that match local needs.”

Concerns were raised during the hearing about reallocating $160 million in state funding from programs that provide mental health care, nursing home care, developmental services and services for people with brain injuries to help fund the package.

An administration official said diverting the money would not affect those programs because the money was a one-time state allocation to replace federal funding that was expected to expire but never did.


Figueroa said that additional state money cannot be spent on any programming without additional action from the Legislature and that any long-term, systemic changes would be better left to the biennial budget process, which begins next month.

Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, raised concerns in written testimony about the use of those funds and the use of $4 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine. While saying she was neither for nor against the bill, she also relayed concerns from a constituent who questioned whether tenants living in apartments where the landlord pays the heat and utilities should qualify for any direct payments.


Nancy Cronin, executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, urged the committee not to divert $35 million in state funding for the adult Developmental Disability Home and Community Based Waiver Services programs, which have been plagued with waiting lists and staffing shortages because of low wages.

Cronin said her group doesn’t oppose heating assistance, but would like the $35 million to be used to help Maine implement new rules for serving people with developmental disabilities.

“Maine was one of the last in the nation to begin implementing the Home and Community Based Settings rule,” Cronin said. “We are still late to the game on coming into compliance and ensuring that people with DD have what they need to live in the community. Perhaps that is where this $35 million should be going. MDDC is concerned that the appropriation committee will learn that more money is needed to improve this system.”


Representatives for community action groups, which have been administering the federal rent relief program and helping residents connect to heating and other assistance, described a deep sense of urgency among their clients, many of whom are calling for the first time.

Kara Hay, president and CEO of Penquis, which serves central and northern Maine, said the number of calls has been unprecedented, especially among seniors who are living on fixed incomes.

“We have been struck by the urgency in people’s voices as they call,” Hay said. “Many are deeply afraid of literally freezing to death this winter. Our Maine people need help and they need help now.”

Gov. Janet Mills negotiated with legislators to come up with a $473 million assistance package  and hoped to pass the proposal on the same day that lawmakers were sworn into office on Dec. 7. It included a round of $450 checks for most taxpayers, as well as $40 million for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, $10 million for heating assistance for middle income households and $21 million for emergency housing and shelter.

Previous Legislatures have passed emergency bills on the inauguration day, but nothing as large as what’s currently being considered.



As an emergency bill, it requires two-thirds support of each legislative chamber to pass and take effect immediately. Democrats control both chambers, including 22 seats in the Senate, where they need 24 votes, and 82 seats in the House, where they need 101 votes.

The measure passed overwhelmingly in the House on a 125-16 vote after Mills agreed to increase the income limits for the refund checks from $75,000 for an individual to $100,000 and from $150,000 for a married couple to $200,000 at the request of House Republicans. However, Senate Republicans blocked the measure, citing the desire to hold a public hearing first.

With permanent committee assignments unlikely until the New Year, the hearing was held by the temporary budget-writing committee, which included at least three House Republicans who supported the original bill.

At least two other proposals have been offered. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, have suggested significant changes to the refund checks, preferring a tiered approach that caps eligibility at 300% of the federal poverty level and provides $800 checks to the lowest income households.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, has proposed allowing residents to create a Maine Heating Account at local banks and credit unions for tax-free contributions and earnings for the purpose of paying for residential heating, electricity and weatherization.

Brakey said in a statement that the account would be similar to health and flex savings accounts. He acknowledged, however, that federal legislation would be needed for the heating savings accounts to qualify for prepayroll deductions.

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