Nearly 880,000 Maine residents could begin receiving $450 refund checks in late January, as long as a $473 million winter energy relief measure passes as expected when the full Legislature gathers Jan. 4.

The proposal, negotiated by Gov. Janet Mills and Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, was denied the two-thirds support needed to be enacted on Dec. 7. But after the bill received a public hearing on Wednesday, a temporary budget committee recommended passage on a unanimous vote.

Mills applauded the committee’s bipartisan vote in a written statement Thursday and called on the Legislature to follow suit.

“This measure – while not perfect to everyone, which is often the case in government – is a compromise that reflects concessions and consensus from Democrats and Republicans that will deliver much-needed aid to Maine people in the depths of winter,” she said. “I ask the Legislature to follow the lead of the committee and pass this bill with the strong support needed to enact it immediately upon my signature.”

To pass as emergency legislation, the bill needs 101 members of the 151-seat House and 24 members of the 35-seat Senate to vote in support of the measure. The bill already easily passed in the House 125-16, but failed in the Senate amid unanimous opposition by the Republicans who were present. Democrats hold 22 seats in the upper chamber, so need two Republicans to join the majority.

A spokesperson for Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said it’s unlikely the Legislature will be called back to Augusta to vote on the bill before it is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 4.


The centerpiece of the package, funded with surplus money, includes a round of $450 checks to individual taxpayers who earned up to $100,000 in 2021, heads of households who earned $150,000 and married couples who earned up to $200,000. The winter energy relief payments make up about $389 million of the $473 million package.

Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, addresses a legislative committee Wednesday during a hearing in Augusta on a heating aid bill. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Kirsten Figueroa, the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs, said that the program is identical to the previous round of $850 checks and will be sent to the same pool of qualifying taxpayers, which should allow the state to issue them more quickly.

Figueroa said that if the bill is approved Jan. 4, then the state will begin issuing checks by the end of January and that all of the checks should be issued by the end of March.

As with the previous round of relief checks, lawmakers questioned whether the money could be directly deposited into people’s bank accounts rather than sending paper checks over a period of weeks. Figueroa said the state must mail checks because it does not have the routing information it would need to send the money to taxpayers through direct deposits.

While 97% of taxpayers file their tax returns electronically or have them filed electronically by a third party, less than 50% receive their refund by direct deposit and some of them change bank accounts from one year to the next, she said.

Mailing the checks is considered more reliable, although it takes several weeks to complete. Supply chain disruptions caused a shortage of envelopes when the state sent out $850 checks in May, but there has been no mention of a shortage of stationery this time.


The bill headed for the Legislature’s approval Jan. 4 also contains $4 million to finish the first round of inflation relief checks.

Figueroa said that nearly 13,500 eligible taxpayers are awaiting refunds, because initial budget estimates were too low. She said the money allocated assumed a 4% increase in tax filers, but the increase was actually 12%, driven primarily by people who don’t normally file tax returns.

The pending bill also adds $40 million to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and another $10 million in emergency heating assistance for households that don’t qualify for the low income program. And it includes an additional $21 million for housing assistance. About $6 million of that funding is being earmarked for applications for federal emergency rental assistance that were pending when the state shutdown the program on Sept. 29.

Officials at MaineHousing say their agency is prepared to get the housing and heating assistance out the door as soon as it arrives. Spokesman Scott Thistle said it would probably take up to four weeks from when the governor signs the bill for the funding to be available.

People who already qualify for LIHEAP will have their accounts credited with the additional assistance without having to apply for it, Thistle said.

Thistle said up to 1,720 additional households could receive rental assistance, if approved by lawmakers. So far, 34,207 households have received federal emergency rental assistance benefits, which end Dec. 31, according to the agency.


“Hopefully, it will help prevent as many evictions as possible,” he said, adding that each landlord-tenant relationship and situation is different. “If the Legislature approves this on Jan. 4, that would be a clear signal to the landlords that the money is coming.”

An additional $15 million is earmarked for emergency shelters and warming centers. That pool of funding will be used for pay for hotels only as a last resort, according to MaineHousing, which indicated that the funding should last through April.

Thistle said 1,084 households statewide are staying in hotels, including 605 households using rental assistance funding, 229 households using Federal Emergency Management Agency funding and 250 households using General Assistance.

Frank D’Alessandro, the legal services director for the nonprofit advocacy group Maine Equal Justice, expects the funds will be available in time to prevent evictions if the bill is approved by the Legislature. Any evictions that do occur would only add to an overburdened emergency shelter system, he said, since affordable housing is so scarce.

“The delay was stress-inducing, but there shouldn’t be a gap because of the delay, said D’Alessandro, who was in court Thursday trying to prevent tenants from being evicted. “Without this component of the bill people who are sheltered now are going to become unsheltered in the middle of the Maine winter. That means they’re going to be outside in the cold.”

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, stood by his caucus’ decision to withhold support for the bill until a public hearing was held.


Stewart said public testimony showed “qualified support” for the bill and highlighted concerns, especially with regards to diverting funding from nursing homes and services for people with developmental disabilities. It also highlighted the lack of planning for the end of federal funding that is supplementing rents and paying for hotel rooms from people who are homeless, he said.

“We did the right thing, and I believe firmly that the Maine people agree with that sentiment,” Stewart said. “It was right to ask for a hearing. We got hundreds of pieces of testimony. If you didn’t represent a nonprofit or live in Portland, the testimony was pretty much not just carte blanche pass the bill.”

Although the bill came out of committee with a unanimous recommendation, Stewart expects floor amendments to be offered on Jan. 4. He said he wasn’t yet sure how many there would be and what changes they would propose.

Jackson’s spokeswoman, Christine Kirby, said the Senate president is urging members to pass the bill as is.

“At this point, we don’t know whether or not there will be floor amendments,” Kirby said. “However, given unanimous committee vote and strong bipartisan vote that took place on Dec. 7 in the House, President Jackson believes that this version of the proposal is most likely to prevail.”

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