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The fallout from the failed emergency energy and housing assistance bill

Maine Legislature
Robert F. Bukaty
The new Maine Legislature is sworn in, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

It took less than 10 hours for the smiles, back-slaps and warm-and-fuzzy feelings on the opening day of the session Wednesday to fade away and for partisan tensions to rear up in the Maine Legislature.

In a departure from tradition, Democratic leaders along with Gov. Janet Mills had hoped to quickly pass a $474 million “Emergency Winter Heating Relief Plan” on Wednesday after completing all of the ceremony and housekeeping that typically dominates the first day. The plan’s centerpiece was $450 “relief payment” checks sent to nearly 900,000 Maine taxpayers.

Janet Mills
Robert F. Bukaty
Maine Gov. Janet Mills arrives to swear in the new Maine Legislature, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

Record-high heating oil prices as well as rising electricity rates were top issues in the 2022 elections. And Republicans up and down the ballot – from former Gov. Paul LePage to legislative candidates – often accused Mills and Democrats of not doing enough to help Maine families.

But when the bill got to the Senate for final approval (after passing the House 125-16), Republicans blocked it as they demanded a public hearing and a committee review.

“We feel confident that this bill will pass so long as there is transparency and accountability in the process, and we are happy to do that as soon as humanly possible,” Sen. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, the Republican minority leader, said after the vote.

As Republican senators return to their districts, one question will be whether their concerns about legislative process will resonate with constituents facing the sticker shock of $7-a-gallon kerosene.

But another is: did the high-priority bill’s failure on Day 1 set an ominous tone for the rest of the 131st Legislature?

“Yeah, it makes it hard,” Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said Wednesday night.

A professional logger just emerging from his own bruising reelection campaign in Aroostook County, Jackson acknowledged during his first Senate speech earlier that day that it’s getting harder to set aside egos as election season gets uglier and uglier.

“But we must move forward and bury the hatchet because it’s not about me or about any of us,” Jackson said. “It’s not about party labels or political games. It honestly is about Maine people and the job that they have sent us to do in their hour of need.”

Seven hours later, however, a visibly flustered Jackson wasn’t sure about a path forward on the emergency energy relief bill. And as he did an hour earlier during an emotional floor speech, Jackson warned that failure to act swiftly could be deadly as struggling Mainers go to “extraordinary” (and unsafe) lengths to stay warm.

“We will have people that will end up dying because of it,” Jackson told reporters in his office. “That I know. And no one in this building will be able to say that they didn’t know that was coming or they are sorry or that they didn’t have a chance to actually do something that might have helped.”

Aroostook County Action Program, which helps administer heating assistance, received 400 requests for help on Monday alone. But concerns extend beyond keeping the furnace running.

The bill also proposed $21 million in emergency housing and shelter assistance as federal housing grants are set to expire, raising the prospect of thousands of evictions in the middle of winter. Some of that money goes to temporarily house asylum seekers in the Greater Portland area, often in hotels. But the vast majority of those federal emergency housing funds flow to Maine residents.

As emotions and political tensions rose in the Senate Wednesday night, Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop responded to Republican criticism that there was no public feedback on the emergency bill. Hickman said every politician running this year likely heard over and over again from voters about the cost-of-housing crisis. And he noted that a housing commission (which he co-chaired) heard extensive testimony about the need for additional emergency housing assistance.

“If you don’t vote for this, you basically have told all of the people that told you that they cannot afford the cost of living (and) that you were going to help them deal with, you’ve betrayed them,” Hickman said.

That comment didn’t sit well with some Senate Republicans. But their position on the bill was squarely at odds with the majority of House Republicans who backed the bill. Both of the GOP leaders in the House, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Rep. Amy Arata of New Gloucester, voted for the emergency measure because of what they said was the urgent need despite concerns about the process.

Faulkingham was in the Senate when that chamber failed to pass the bill. Asked about the outcome after the overwhelmingly bipartisan House vote, Faulkingham said, “We (House Republicans) made a commitment to workers and families, and we lived up to our commitment today.”

What happens next?

To be clear, the heating relief bill is far from dead.

While the full House and Senate aren’t slated to return until early next month, Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross could call the Legislature back into session at any time. But scheduling a public hearing when the committees aren’t set up yet will take time.

So Wednesday was the best chance to get it done quickly and have those $450 relief checks mailed by mid-January to roughly 880,000 Maine eligible taxpayers (individuals who earned less than $100,000 last year and joint-filing couples who earned less than $200,000).

Rep. Sawin Millett, a longtime Republican lawmaker from Waterford who is the resident expert on all things budgetary in the Legislature, pointed out that the typical budget review process for appropriations bills takes a month or more. Millett voted for the emergency bill.

But Sen. Lisa Keim, the assistant Republican leader in the Senate, reiterated that she and her colleagues remain at the table.

“We recognize the dire need for fuel assistance and housing facing Maine’s people; these are my neighbors and constituents who are relying on me,” said Keim, R-Oxford. “We are fully engaged and ready to tackle these issues.”

GOP: Let voters elect constitutional officers

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, Attorney General Aaron Frey and Treasurer Henry Beck, all Democrats, retained their posts on Wednesday after the Democratic-led Legislature re-elected them to two-year terms.

Republican lawmakers declined to put forward their own nominations for those positions, which are formally called “constitutional officers” in Maine. Doing so was a break from tradition, but that tradition is also often an exercise in futility for the minority party because it doesn’t have the votes to advance its nominees.

Instead, Republican House leader Rep. Faulkingham and Senate minority Stewart issued a joint statement calling for voters to elect the secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer.

“We chose not to nominate anyone this year because, for some time now, Republicans have felt these choices should be made by the people. We’re the only state in the nation where the Legislature selects these very important positions,” Stewart said in the statement. “What we would like to do instead is work to put those positions back into the hands of the people where they firmly belong. Let Maine voters decide who should keep Maine’s government transparent and enforce our laws – that should be the people’s power.”

Maine is unique in how it elects those positions, but efforts to change it have previously fallen short, in part because the majority party has little incentive to do so. The system is enshrined in the Maine Constitution and would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, and ratification by voters via referendum, to undo it.

Same-sex marriage vote in House

The bill guaranteeing federal recognition of same-sex marriages will soon become law following a vote in the U.S. House.

The move to codify marriage equality in federal law has been years in the making, but recently picked up a critical mass of bipartisan support amid fears that a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting same-sex unions could be overturned by a conservative supermajority of justices.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden were among the 258 House members that supported the Respect for Marriage Act during a vote Thursday that sent the measure to President Joe Biden.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, David Cicilline, Jerrold Nadler, Sean Patrick Maloney, Susan Collins, Tammy Baldwin
Andrew Harnik
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., center, accompanied by from left, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., Pelosi, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., speaks before signing H.R. 8404, the Respect For Marriage Act, during a signing ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

“A decade ago, bipartisan support for marriage equality would have been unfathomable,” Pingree said in a statement. “But today, in the face of brazen and continued threats to Americans’ civil liberties from a deeply polarizing and bigoted Supreme Court, my Congressional colleagues and I – from both sides of the aisle – took action to ensure that everyone, regardless of their race or sexual orientation, has the right to marry the person they love.”

The bill recently cleared the U.S. Senate after Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin negotiated language on religious liberties protections in order to pick up enough Republican support to get around a filibuster. Twelve GOP senators ultimately joined the vast majority of Democrats in voting to support the bill.

Collins was also invited to Thursday’s enrollment ceremony by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While Collins has highlighted the inclusion of religious liberty protections in the bill, her support for it has been criticized by the Christian Civic League of Maine. The group has opposed same-sex marriages in Maine, which legalized those unions in 2012 via referendum.

King: Don’t let Putin divide West

Independent Sen. Angus King appeared on Fox News Sunday with Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst to continue advocating for U.S. arms and aid to Ukraine.

King has consistently supported supplying Ukraine as the country tries to repel an unprovoked invasion by Russia. But his recent comments came amid increased calls from the Trump wing of the Republican party to end American support, as well as requests to get a better accounting of weapons shipments. The latter is expected to be pushed in the U.S. House of Representatives now that Republicans have won narrow control of the chamber and could conceivably block future aid packages.

“I think what we've supplied to Ukrainians has been enormously important and we need to continue to do so,” King said. “(Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s number one priority is to divide the West in terms of our support for Ukraine. We can't fall for it.”

Ernst said the U.S. can track weapons shipments and continue to provide the aid. She framed support for Ukraine as helping curb the rising influence of Russia and China.

“I would put it this way: do we want to live in a world that is dominated by Russia, China, and Iran, where they are controlling the direction of our globe?” she said. “I don't want to live in that world. I don't want to see what that looks like. I think it's incredibly important that we continue to advance freedom in Ukraine.”

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.