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Emergency heat and housing bill expected to pass next month, Maine legislative leaders say

Drivers for heating oil delivery companies fill their trucks at the Sprague terminal, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in South Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Drivers for heating oil delivery companies fill their trucks at the Sprague terminal, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, in South Portland, Maine.

Legislative leaders say they believe an emergency heating and housing assistance bill will pass the full Legislature early next month after receiving a unanimous committee vote this week.

The $474 million bill was an early test of leaders on both sides of the aisle after Republicans in the Maine Senate blocked the measure two weeks ago and called for a public hearing.

After a long meeting on Wednesday, the bill received a unanimous endorsement from a special committee. And the final version was pretty much the same bill that stalled in the Legislature two weeks ago, providing $450 relief checks to nearly 900,000 Maine taxpayers, putting an additional $50 million into low-income heat assistance programs and allocating $21 million more in emergency housing assistance.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said Thursday that she believes two-thirds of the Legislature will give final approval to the bill on Jan. 4, thereby allowing it to become effective immediately. That will also immediately free up money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, as well as the emergency housing funds aimed at preventing thousands of evictions in the coming months as federal COVID-era subsidies expire.

“I was hoping that it could have been sooner (because) I know people are struggling and looking to us for some relief, but we are on our way,” Talbot Ross said. "And I also want to say that we're not going to leave anyone behind. This is just the beginning. This is definitely not the end. When we come back on the 4th, we intend to pick up and find more permanent solutions to this current crisis."

Sen. Trey Stewart, a Presque Isle Republican who serves as the Senate minority leader, had been most vocal advocate for more transparency on a bill that Gov. Janet Mills and the leaders of the other three State House caucuses had hoped to pass on Dec. 7. Stewart told his fellow members of the temporary Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the public testimony also highlighted other pressing needs, such as underfunded nursing homes and reducing the number of disabled people waiting for state services. And he thinks the bill will now pass following that hearing, although maybe not with unanimous GOP support.

"It was not at all that we didn't understand the urgency of the situation,” Stewart said of his caucus’ initial opposition to the heating and housing bill. “It's because we didn't want to screw something up. Hopefully going forward, we can avoid situations like that. I really appreciate too the opportunity to have this public hearing here today and I appreciate the presiding officers indulging us in that critically important aspect of the process and having an opportunity to put our swords down and do something for the people of Maine, even if it’s not what we all would have wanted.”

Community assistance programs and nonprofits report they are already seeing unprecedented demand for help from Maine families as winter sets in. Heating oil prices have come down somewhat since hitting record highs earlier this year. But the statewide average of $4.53 a gallon is more than 40% higher than last year. And households with outdoor tanks that rely on kerosene are paying more than $6.50 a gallon.

Legislative leaders heard hours of testimony this week about the immediate crisis but also the need for long-term solutions to the state's energy and affordable housing problems.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Winter Harbor Republican who serves as House minority leader, acknowledged that the bill wasn’t the one he would have written.

“But we’ve come together to compromise for the good of Maine people and that’s the moment that we’re at right now,” said Faulkingham, who voted to pass the emergency measure on Dec. 7.

Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa with the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services told lawmakers that $450 relief checks will be distributed using the same system that sent $850 inflation relief checks to more than 800,000 taxpayers earlier this year. To be eligible, individuals must have earned less than $100,000 and couples must earn less than $200,000.

"And we are anticipating that once we get the OK from this body, that we will process this next 880,000 checks hopefully within six to eight weeks,” Figueroa said.