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Politics

Skyrocketing energy costs jump to the top of Maine's legislative agenda

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Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
A sign for gas prices in Yarmouth, Maine on March 10, 2022. Energy issues have jumped to the top of the agenda in Augusta as the governor, legislators and political candidates scramble to find ways to help Mainers cope with skyrocketing costs for gas, heating oil and electricity.

In this week's Pulse: Energy issues jump to the top of the agenda in Augusta, Mills is officially on the ballot, what Poliquin isn't saying, safeguarding ballots, and a postal overhaul.

Energy issues have jumped to the top of the agenda in Augusta as the governor, legislators and political candidates scramble to find ways to help Mainers cope with skyrocketing costs for gas, heating oil and electricity.

The emerging proposals range from suspending Maine’s gas tax to hefty rebates for electricity customers. But they are all short-term, nibble-around-the-edges solutions because there’s only so much that state or federal policymakers can do about oil and natural gas prices set on the global market.

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Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, acknowledged that frustration this week as he and other Democrats outlined several proposals while unveiling a proposal to offer rebates on electric bills.

“Energy prices are complicated and there’s just no silver bullet or piece of legislation that is going to solve this crisis,” Jackson said.

So what chance do they have of coming to fruition?

One idea that garnered a lot of media attention is reducing the gas tax.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mills this year, said the state should cut that 30-cents-per-gallon tax in half until summer tourists start flocking to the state. A three-month reduction would translate into a $22 savings for the “average” Mainer who drives about 15,000 a year in a vehicle that gets 25 mpg. It would also result in a $30 million cut in revenue for road and bridge maintenance, plowing, filling potholes, etc.

Maine’s gas tax hasn’t changed since 2011, which is when LePage and Republican lawmakers eliminated the automatic “indexing” that pegged the tax to inflation.

LePage, who hopes to win his old job back this November, was also open to an idea put forward by Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, to suspend the state gas tax for the rest of the year.

“Thirty cents off a gallon might not be much, but it adds up whether it is that family or that business, and we should provide relief where we can, when we can,” Libby said in an interview.

Maine DOT spokesman Paul Merrill estimated that would save that average Maine driver about $135 – but “only if gas retailers made the decision to pass along the gas tax holiday to consumers.”

That’s a big “if,” of course. And should lawmakers reduce or suspend the tax, they’ll face inevitable blowback from constituents over a 15- or 30-cent jump in gas prices when the “gas tax holiday” ends.

The gas tax plan was also panned by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Municipal Association and construction trade groups.

And it’s likely a hard sell with Democratic leaders who, along with their Republican counterparts, need to approve any late-filed bills before they go to the full Legislature. For his part, Jackson said he understands the urge to ax the tax but added, “I think there are other ways we can do it.”

Jackson also noted that for years Republicans have been pressuring Democrats to back transportation borrowing proposals to address the poor condition of Maine’s roads and bridges. The gas tax pays for that maintenance, but the revenues collected by the state haven’t kept pace with demand. It’s a perennial problem that lawmakers are wary to take on – mostly because they’re terrified of the political and electoral implications of raising the gas tax or imposing other fees.

Mills, meanwhile, has proposed sending $750 checks to 800,000-plus Mainers using anticipated surplus revenue.

Other energy proposals

Heating oil prices jumped 87 cents in one week to an average $4.73 a gallon statewide on March 7, according to state data. In response, MaineHousing announced this week that the maximum benefit available to a household in an immediate “energy crisis” would rise from $600 to $1,400.

Lawmakers are also considering several emergency bills to streamline the application process for eligible Mainers to receive assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) including the addition of online applications.

On the electricity front, Jackson said he is still working out the details of his proposal to offset a more than 80 percent increase in the supply rates charged by Versant and Central Maine Power. The gist of Jackson’s proposal would be to offer $1,000 tax rebates to some residential electric customers and up to a $2,500 rebate for businesses with “high energy usage.” Those eligibility details are still being worked out.

Jackson acknowledged during a press conference on Wednesday that immediate enactment would require dipping into the $1.2 billion surplus that Mills wants to tap for her $750 checks.

Doing both would be hard, so Jackson said his rebates on electricity could start next year.

“We are trying to get money into people’s hands immediately,” he said.

Mills’ office said on Thursday that “the governor is open to considering Representative Libby's proposal, along with those offered by Senate President Jackson, Senator Eloise Vitelli, and others.”

Mills also cautioned that rising energy prices, linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, could prompt Mainers to reduce overall spending except on necessities, thereby slowing Maine’s economic recovery in the short term.

In the meantime, she has proposed returning half of the surplus to Mainers through $750 checks.

“For an average Maine family, with two adults, this proposal is estimated to provide $1,500 in direct relief,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete said in a statement. “Another benefit of delivering relief in this way is that it provides Maine people with the freedom to decide for themselves how best to use the money, whether it be for groceries, gas, heating fuel, electricity, or other expenses. The governor is very open to considering increasing these payments to help Maine people cope with higher costs.”

Golden and Poliquin agree on something

The growing energy crisis tied to the war in Ukraine has re-elevated the debate over increasing extraction of oil and natural gas from U.S. lands and waters. The loudest cries have come from Republicans and, not surprisingly, politicians in energy-rich states.

But among the Democrats that are on board with ramping up production of domestic energy is Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District.

On Thursday, Golden joined three House Republicans in calling on the Biden administration to use the Defense Production Act to send additional federal resources to boost oil and gas production. They also say the administration should negotiate a three-year purchase agreement with U.S. oil producers to provide “certainty” to the industry and the markets.

This isn’t a new position for Golden, however.

“I have emphasized the need to invest in renewable energy but also to have an all-of-the-above approach that ensures that we have our bases covered from a national security perspective,” Golden told Maine Public earlier this month. “So I think increased drilling and production makes sense right now.”

That puts Golden (once again) at odds with some within his Democratic caucus. It could also undercut one of the arguments being made by Golden’s potential rival this November.

Former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin talked this week about increasing domestic energy production as one of the reasons 2nd District voters should send him back to Capitol Hill.

“We need to reopen our energy patch,” Poliquin said in Augusta. “We need to allow the exploration and development of our own domestic energy.”

Verboten words

Poliquin made those comments while submitting signatures to qualify for the 2022 ballot, but not before dodging several questions about the 2020 election.

Poliquin, who is hoping to avenge his 2018 loss to Golden, was asked several times by News Center Maine reporter Don Carrigan whether President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.

"So I will try once more to ask: Do you believe that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president of the United States?" Carrigan asked Poliquin for a third and final time outside the Burton Cross Building in Augusta on Wednesday.

"I believe voter integrity, Pat [sic], is really important,” said Poliquin. “It is critically important to make sure that it’s really easy to vote but it’s really hard to cheat."

The answer to Carrigan’s question is “yes.” Despite claims to the contrary by former President Donald Trump and his allies, voter or election fraud did not sway the election; last year the Associated Press counted every fraud claim in the states where Trump’s attorneys disputed results and found 475 possible cases -- 15 hundredths of 1% of Biden’s winning margin in those same states.

Nevertheless, acknowledging this reality is not so easy for Republican candidates because the former president and his allies who support him have successfully convinced many GOP voters that the election was somehow stolen.

A poll taken in July found 66% of Republicans believe Biden was not legitimately elected.

Safeguarding ballots

The belief that the 2020 election was stolen has inspired high-profile, expensive, and quixotic efforts by Trump supporters to prove it.

Last year Trump surrogates orchestrated a “forensic audit” of the election in Arizona’s Maricopa County. The effort ended up reaffirming the original results, but left Trump supporters -- and Arizona taxpayers -- lighter in the wallet: The audit was financed by an estimated $6 million in donations, while taxpayers will have to pay $2.8 million to replace voting equipment compromised by what state officials described as a partisan, third-party audit (at one point the auditors sent election data to a so-called lab in Montana that turned out to be one of the auditor’s cabins).

On Wednesday, Democrats in the Maine House gave initial approval to a bill designed to prevent that kind of thing from happening here. It essentially strengthens existing ballot custody rules that were put in place nearly three decades ago after an aide to the then-Democratic House Speaker pled guilty to ballot tampering charges during a recount of two House races.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, received an initial vote of 76-55, along party lines.

Republicans argued that the bill was unnecessary because of existing ballot custody protections.

“We have never had a problem in Maine except for back in the 90s and that’s probably why things are at the point they’re at,” Rep. Josanne Dolloff, R-Milton Township, said during the House debate.

Democrats backing the bill, including Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, said the proposal is designed to protect voter and election data from getting into the hands of partisan activists. The proposal was inspired by the Arizona audit fiasco, as well as a controversy in Mesa County, Colorado where Tina Peters, a Republican election clerk, has been accused of leaking election data to conspiracy theorists.

Peters was indicted by a grand jury on a wide array of charges the day before the vote in the Maine House.

While there hasn’t been a ballot custody controversy since a false alarm in 2014, there have been local efforts to replicate the Arizona forensic audit.

Last year, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, circulated an affidavit calling on state election officials to turn over Maine 2020 election ballots and voting data to the same Trump activists associated with the Arizona audit.

Bellows has said the affidavits have no force of law.

Mills is on the ballot

Gov. Mills this week formalized her reelection bid. On Thursday, her campaign submitted signatures to qualify for the ballot. Her rival, former Gov. Paul LePage, has qualified for the ballot.

Mills and LePage could face primary challenges, but those candidates have until March 15 to submit their 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. The same goes for prospective Green Independent candidate Michael Barden.

While it’s possible Mills and LePage could face off for the first head-to-head gubernatorial contest in 40 years, non-party, or independent, candidates have until June 1 to submit 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

Those deadlines are the same for congressional candidates. So far, the only set primary is in the 2nd Congressional district between Republicans Poliquin and Caratunk resident Liz Caruso, who also qualified for the ballot.

Postal overhaul

Congress has passed a $107 billion overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service following a vote in the U.S. Senate this week.

Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, sided with the majority in the 79-19 vote. U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, both Democrats, supported the bill when it passed the House in February.

The primary aim of the bill is to get the USPS on stable financial footing. One of the key provisions in the bill eliminates the requirement that the Postal Service prefund its employees’ retirement plans, a mandate that forced the agency to earmark billions of dollars every year. The requirement, coupled with steep drop offs in revenue-rich First Class mail, are largely blamed for the agency’s financial woes.

The prefund mandate briefly became an issue in the 2020 U.S. Senate race between Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, who attempted to blame mail delivery delays and the agency’s financial woes on the Republican for helping draft the 2006 law that created the prefund requirement.

Democrats largely supported the 2006 bill. It passed the Senate without a roll call vote and the House by a vote of 410-20.

The new overhaul is expected to help USPS in the long-term, but staffing shortages remain a persistent problem that continue to affect delivery service.

Collins: Ketanji Brown Jackson “impressive”

Collins is considered a possible swing vote to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Maine Republican met with Jackson earlier this week for about 90 minutes. In a scrum with reporters, Collins described Jackson as impressive and “what I want to see in a judge,” compliments that suggest she’s inclined to support her confirmation.

Democrats may not need Collins to confirm Jackson.

Confirmation hearings are expected to begin March 21.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.