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Mills releases energy relief plan and urges lawmakers to pass it as emergency

Lucinda Tyler and Aaron Raymo sit outside their home with fuel containers they used to fill their heating oil tank at their home, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022 in Jay, Maine. The couple shopped around for the best prices and bought heating oil 5 gallons at a time throughout the summer whenever they had any extra money.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Lucinda Tyler and Aaron Raymo sit outside their home with fuel containers they used to fill their heating oil tank at their home, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022 in Jay, Maine. The couple shopped around for the best prices and bought heating oil 5 gallons at a time throughout the summer whenever they had any extra money.

This story will be updated.

Lawmakers are being sworn into Maine's 131st legislature on Wednesday. And it appears they'll be busy from the get-go. Gov. Janet Mills has been meeting with lawmakers from both parties on a potential emergency relief plan to help Mainers cope with high costs of heating and electricity. But the plan would need bipartisan support from two-thirds of the legislature for it to immediately become law. For more on where things stand, Steve Mistler, Maine Public's state house bureau chief, debriefed with All Things Considered Host Robbie Feinberg.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: Why is there such urgency in getting this plan passed as soon as possible, but potentially by the end of tomorrow?

Steve Mistler: So the reason for the urgency is really twofold. First, there's a recognition in both parties that something needs to be done to help Mainers with heating oil costs. While we've seen some easing in the price per gallon in recent weeks, it's still a lot higher than it was a year ago. That's going to put a lot of strain on people's budgets, especially in low and middle income households. And remember that 60% of main households use oil to heat their homes. The second factor is the price of electricity is about to jump considerably come Jan. 1. That's when the new supply rates for home and small businesses go into effect. And in Central Maine powers coverage area, for example, that increase is going to drive up electricity bills by 49%. So you really have a double whammy confronting Maine residents, and that's why the governor wants to have the legislature essentially introduce, pass and let her sign a bill the same day that the new legislature is sworn in. And that has not happened in nearly three decades. That's how much of an emergency they all think this is.

So what do we know about what's actually included in this proposal at this point?

So the overall proposal is close to a half billion dollars, most of which draws on anticipated budget surplus, and the rest might come from other unspent revenues or possibly the state's rainy day fund. And the central feature here is direct payments to qualifying Mainers that are very similar to the inflation relief payments that Gov. Mills in the previous legislature approved over the summer. The direct payments in this case will be a lot less, about half $450, but it's still the most costly part of the proposal. The rest of the plan includes $40 million for low income heating assistance that's administered through the Maine State Housing Authority, another $10 million to Community Action Agencies for emergency heating assistance. That's basically in situations in which people can get a delivery of fuel quickly if they're running out and are short of cash to buy it off the truck themselves. And then there's another $22 million that will go to emergency housing and shelter assistance. This part of the plan is really designed to build a bridge between the end of a federal emergency housing assistance program that 34,000 households across the state utilized during the pandemic because of the soaring housing costs.

The governor has said that those direct payments would help low and middle income Mainers. Who qualifies as low and middle income here?

Right. So under this plan, a single tax filer will have to make less than $100,000 a year to qualify, while a couple filing jointly will have to make less than 200,000. These thresholds are actually a lot higher than the governor's original proposal. And they're much higher than some liberal advocacy groups wanted - they wanted more targeted relief. But Republicans wanted to broaden the payments to reach more people, so the governor basically agreed to do that. It was a similar negotiation to the inflation relief payments from earlier this year that went out to 850,000 Mainers, and this plan will probably reach that many, if not a few more.

Are there other big sticking points in the plan that lawmakers are trying to work through?

Well, I think Republicans weren't super thrilled about the housing assistance piece in this proposal. And they also had some concerns about the process. Remember, there are no established committees for this new legislature yet, which means this bill isn't being reviewed by any of them. They're basically being asked to pass this on swearing in day so Gov. Mills can sign it the same day. Again, that's something that hasn't happened since 1994.

So what happens if lawmakers don't have an agreement by the time that the legislature is sworn in?

As of now, I think the plan is to run the bill no matter what. The GOP to has some leverage, but not a ton. And I think a lot of that leverage disappears when this bill hits the floor of the House and Senate. Look, the governor needs Republican votes to pass this bill as an emergency because Democrats don't have a supermajority. But Republicans also ran on high energy costs during the election, and if they vote against this bill, Democrats will no doubt turn around and blame them for denying emergency heating and energy assistance to Maine people. So all the pressure is really on the GOP here. Democrats don't need to peel off that many Republican votes to do this. They basically need 17 Republicans in the House and just one in the Senate to reach that supermajority threshold to pass this as an emergency.

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