The proposal by my state senator, Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop), to establish a new fund to assist small businesses harmed by the recent spate of winter storms is a good one.

It’s especially vital because many of these businesses didn’t have flood insurance or were unclear about exactly what it covered. Indeed, it’s such a good idea that it’s difficult to believe such a program doesn’t exist already; the need for it is a textbook example of the failure of government to plan ahead.

Even though it’s technically a new program, it’s also an excellent use of the budget surplus, since it’s intended to address an individual event – or, rather, a series of them. It’s nice to see this sort of commonsense program receive unanimous bipartisan support in committee, so it can be enacted quickly, even swinging into action before the current budget year ends. It’s an example of the sort of basic governing that so often seems impossible even in Augusta these days, let alone in Washington, D.C.

Actually, if it is enacted as written, this program could become simply a starting point. For one, it need not be funded on a one-time basis; a permanent revenue stream should be found for it. Now, the danger of expanding the idea is that it could get bogged down in disagreement on two different, but equally divisive, subjects: taxes and climate change. That’s a possibility, but one that could be readily avoided if both parties could continue to be reasonable and work together.

On the funding side, the Small Business Weather Emergency Relief Fund could simply be included in the list of funds that are eligible for transfers through the cascade process. This process, triggered whenever there is a budget surplus, sends excess funds to a variety of programs in a certain order; the Legislature recently added housing assistance to the list, for instance. No matter what your views are on climate change, it’s hard to argue that a permanent disaster relief fund isn’t similarly important for the state to establish. This would make the state less dependent on federal disaster relief, which can fall victim to partisan politics, and make it more able to quickly respond to natural disasters. It would be a literal rainy day fund, rather than a metaphorical financial one. The only reason to oppose this funding mechanism would be that it might sap away funding from other programs, but that’s why there’s a priority list established as part of the process.

Another way the program could be expanded in the future – if the funding is available and it proves effective – is to cover more than just small businesses. Call it the Severe Weather Emergency Relief Fund.


Many homeowners also face costly challenges from severe weather, and not just the recent severe rainstorms: blizzards, lightning strikes, extreme cold and heat can all impact homeowners as well as small businesses. It would be important to structure a wider-reaching program so that it doesn’t dissuade anyone from purchasing their own insurance or be used to respond to individual, isolated incidents, but that can certainly be done. As with federal disaster relief, use of the program can be tied to a disaster declaration by the governor, with an application process and specific criteria defined in statute. Establishing this sort of program on a permanent basis in advance of the next natural disaster is a far better approach than creating a new program in response, as we are now.

Another related problem that needs addressing is the cost borne by utilities responding to storms. While the companies themselves shouldn’t be forced to bear the entire cost of storm response, it’s also not fair to consumers to raise rates to pay for them, either. Neither the companies nor their customers are responsible for bad weather. While all parties involved will end up paying some cost, it shouldn’t feel punitive to anyone.

To that end, the Legislature ought to consider a new fund to mitigate the impact of rate increases after natural disasters, similarly funded through budget surpluses when available. It’s long past time for Maine to be more proactive and independent about planning for disaster relief. Sen. Hickman’s bill is an excellent start. Hopefully it lays the groundwork for rethinking our entire approach, rather than being just a one-time fix.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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