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Legislature approves emergency bill containing $450 relief checks

A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A pedestrian walks by the Maine State House, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

Many Maine residents will soon receive $450 checks to help cover rising heat and electricity bills this winter after state lawmaker approved an emergency spending bill that had stalled in the Senate last month.

The centerpiece of the $473 million spending bill is the $450 checks that could begin going out this month to individuals who make less than $100,000. Couples with a combined income of less than $200,000 would receive two checks totaling $900. But the emergency bill funnels an additional $50 million to home heating assistance programs for low-income Mainers – including $40 million for the LIHEAP program – as well as $21 million in emergency housing assistance.

The bill was financed using surplus tax revenues and other unspent funds. Gov. Janet Mills, whose administration negotiated the emergency bill with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, quickly signed the bill into law on Wednesday prior to her second inauguration ceremony. Administration officials have said that they hope to begin sending out the $450 relief checks later this month based on the same system that was used to distribute $850 inflation relief checks to the same pool of eligible taxpayers last year.

“With high energy prices causing real hardship, this emergency measure will ease the financial burden on Maine people by putting money back into their pockets and ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are able to stay warm this winter,” Mills said in a statement. “I thank the Legislature for its strong, bipartisan vote, and I look forward to continuing to work with them to implement long-term solutions that will bring down energy costs, improve energy efficiency, and reduce Maine’s highest-in-the-nation dependence on expensive and harmful fossil fuels.”

Heating oil prices have declined in recent months but the average statewide price of $4.50 a gallon last week was still more than 40 percent higher than the same time last year. The average price of kerosene, which many households with outdoor tanks rely upon, was $6.35 per gallon last week, according to data compiled by the Governor’s Energy Office. And some community assistance programs around the state had been reporting unprecedented demand for help even before winter set in.

More than 880,000 individuals are expected to receive the $450 checks, which can be used for any purpose. Lawmakers rejected a proposal on Wednesday that would have replaced the checks with $450 vouchers for use to pay heating bills.

Maine's housing crisis is expected to be a major focus this year's legislative session as more Maine families struggle to find affordable places to live following years of soaring rents and housing prices. But the $21 million in the emergency bill is aimed at helping prevent evictions among people who had received assistance through a federal, COVID-era housing that has since expired. While some of that money will be used to pay to house asylum seekers in the Greater Portland area, lawmakers heard testimony last month that people living in more than 120 towns across the state had been receiving the federal assistance.

Democratic Sen. Mattie Daughtry, who serves as the assistant majority leader in the Senate, said there are 77 such families in her hometown of Brunswick alone.

"This is not the end of the conversation,” Daughtry said in a floor speech. “This is literally just a short-term Band-aid to make sure that we can all get through what's going to be a pretty hard winter. It's a first step. It's not the end of the game."

Democratic legislative leaders as well as Gov. Janet Mills had hoped to pass the bill a month ago. But Senate Republicans blocked the measure because they said a nearly half-billion-dollar spending bill required a public hearing and committee review. That hearing finally happened on Dec. 21, and the bill that passed on Wednesday was unchanged from the original that had stalled on the Senate floor earlier in the month.

The bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 114-29 and on a vote of 24-10 in the Senate, which was just above the two-thirds majority needed to pass as an emergency measure that will take effect immediately. All 39 lawmakers who voted against the bill were Republicans. Among them was Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who says lawmakers missed an opportunity to use some of surplus money to address long-standing needs in Maine's nursing homes and group homes for people with disabilities.

"This has been a problem to me since Day 1,” Timberlake said. “And I only wish that we'd taken a minute and found a way to use some more of this money, to help some more of these people that are in these programs that are being left out."

But House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, praised the bipartisan work to pass the bill.

“Maine people needed immediate help with heating and housing assistance – and with this bill, we delivered,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “Direct financial relief will be in Mainers mailboxes by the end of the month and vital emergency housing funds will be distributed to municipalities to prevent evictions during our coldest months. When we truly work together and put the needs of Maine people before partisanship, this is the progress that we can achieve. It is my full intention this upcoming session to build upon these results and continue to deliver for all Maine families.”