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Maine Democrats propose bills to provide short-term relief from soaring energy and electric costs

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.

Democrats in the Maine Legislature Wednesday promoted a slate of proposals that they hope will provide short-term relief to residents crushed by soaring electric and heating bills.

Every lawmaker who spoke during Wednesday's press conference had a story about a frustrated constituent who had called or written to complain about electricity or heating oil prices that have skyrocketed this winter.

In Senate President Troy Jackson's case, one of those constituents was his mother, whose electricity bill has tripled since last year.

"Now let me tell ya, when Mom's mad, things are not going to go well," he said.

And they're not going well — particularly for Mainers on fixed income that have been blindsided by the energy prices, or for elected officials who know that there isn't a lot that can be done about it, at least in the short term.

Jackson says the four bills touted by Democrats Wednesday are an acknowledgement of this reality, yet they aim to chip away at an issue that is largely shaped by global markets.

That's what's driving up the costs of heating oil and propane.

And, because Maine and New England are so reliant on natural gas, global markets are also affecting electricity prices.

Jackson says neither of those reasons are satisfactory to the people struggling to understand why their bills have gone up even if as they keep thermostats low and conserve electricity.

"It's clear that Mainers are desperate for relief and I don't blame them," he said. "That's why we as legislative Democrats have put together a plan to tackle this from so many different angles."

Jackson's bill aims to provide a $1,500 tax rebate for residential electricity ratepayers and a $2,500 rebate for small businesses.

His proposal is still in the drafting stage, so there are no details about who would qualify or whether the rebates will be available for this tax season or the next one.

Another bill by Democratic Sen. Chip Curry, of Belfast, attempts to establish an online application for low-income heating assistance programs.

Those programs are flush with additional cash because the American Rescue Plan passed by Democrats in Congress provided Maine an additional $55 million.

But the problem for those who qualify for the assistance is actually getting it, Curry says.

"The only catch is that date policies and bureaucratic red tape have prevented many Mainers from getting the relief that they're eligible for and desperately need," he said.

The current application process for heating assistance is lengthy and there's no way to apply online.

Curry's bill, which recently received the unanimous endorsement of the Labor and Housing Committee, requires the local agencies that administer the program to provide an online application option.

Rep. Raegan LaRochelle, a Democrat from Augusta, is sponsoring a different bill that also takes aim at the application slog, directing $2 million to the Maine State Housing Authority to find ways to speed up processing.

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Eloise Vitelli, of Arrowsic, has a bill that would establish a working group to find ways to avoid future utility price shocks.

Some of the proposals, including the rebate program, will require funding and could be included in the supplemental budget bill that the Legislature hopes to pass in April.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.