Mills signs emergency heating assistance, $450 relief checks

Jan. 4—AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills signed an emergency $473 million heating and energy relief bill Wednesday afternoon, clearing the way for the state to begin issuing $450 checks to most taxpayers.

Both the House and Senate passed the bill with enough support to enact it as an emergency measure. At least two-thirds of both chambers must support legislation for it to take effect immediately.

Mills announced soon after the votes that she had signed the bill into law. The state could begin mailing $450 relief checks this month.

"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," Mill said in a written 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."

The Senate voted 24-10 in favor of the bill and the House voted 114-29 for passage. Several floor amendments were rejected Wednesday morning before the final votes.

It was the first order of business as lawmakers returned to Augusta to kick off the 131st legislative session in earnest.

The law also will provide tens of millions of dollars in heating aid for low- and middle-income households, and millions more for emergency housing and shelter.

This winter's heating and energy prices — as well as inflation generally — are expected to stretch or exceed household budgets and deplete existing home heating assistance programs. Such concerns were expressed repeatedly by both Republicans and Democrats during the campaign season.

The package is identical to one that failed to pass with enough support last month. It had strong bipartisan support in the House, but was blocked by Senate Republicans, who demanded a public hearing.

That hearing was held in late December and Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, announced that some of his caucus members had decided to support the bill, even though no changes were made to the original proposal negotiated by Mills and party leaders in each chamber.

After the votes were cast, Stewart described the package, while imperfect, as a "victory for Maine's people," largely because his caucus forced a public hearing on the proposal.

"While our caucus believes this bill is far from perfect — and the testimony presented during the public hearing proved that — we recognize the urgency of the situation created by failed government policies and allowed the bill to move forward in a spirit of pragmatism," he said.

The winter energy relief proposal, funded with surplus money, will provide $450 checks to roughly 880,000 income-eligible taxpayers. Checks will be automatically mailed to individual taxpayers who earned up to $100,000 in 2021, heads of households who earned $150,000 and married couples who earned up to $200,000.

Those relief payments make up about $389 million of the $473 million package.

Kirsten Figueroa, the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs, said last month that the program is identical to the previous round of $850 inflation relief checks and will be sent to the same pool of qualifying taxpayers, which should allow the state to issue them more quickly.

Figueroa has said the state will begin sending checks by the end of January and that all of the checks should be issued by the end of March.

The package also contains $4 million to finish the first round of inflation relief checks.

Figueroa said that nearly 13,500 eligible taxpayers are awaiting those $850 checks because initial estimates of the funds required were too low. She said the money allocated assumed a 4% increase in tax filings to qualify for the checks, but the increase was actually 12%, driven primarily by people who don't normally file tax returns.

It adds $40 million to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and another $10 million in emergency heating assistance for households that don't qualify for the low income program.

And it includes an additional $21 million for housing assistance. About $6 million of that funding is being earmarked for applications for federal emergency rental assistance that were pending when the state shutdown the program on Sept. 29.

The bill needed 101 House members and 24 senators to pass as an emergency measure, which meant it would need bipartisan support. It received 114 votes in the House, where Democrats hold 62 seats, and 24 votes in the Senate, where Democrats hold 22 seats.

Republican legislators offered four amendments. All were rejected.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, tried to eliminate the $450 rebate checks and instead adopt a sales tax holiday for roughly three months, arguing that it would help more Mainers than in the income targeted checks. Libby blamed pandemic-era stimulus and relief checks issued under both Trump and Biden for fueling inflation.

"Why, when we have repeatedly had a surplus at the state level, do we not cut taxes instead of writing checks, thus leaving more money in the pockets of hardworking Mainers in the first place?" Libby said.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, argued that people have become too reliant on government checks during the pandemic.

Brakey questioned whether the bill would lead to what's known as a universal basic income program where "people can wait more and more for the next round of checks to be sent out."

The Senate debated the bill for about an hour, with Republicans outlining their concerns with the bill and the fast-tracked approval. In the end, only three Senate Republicans joined Democrats in support: Stewart, Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, and Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais.

Bennett, nevertheless, criticized the bill, describing it as a supplemental budget that would spend nearly all of the projected surplus in the opening days of the session, leaving none for other priorities, such as funding indigent legal services, nursing homes, direct care workers or the opioid epidemic.

Assistant Majority Leader Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, said that long-term solutions to the housing crisis and high energy could be debated throughout the legislative session.

"This is not the end of the conversation. This is literally just a short-term Band Aid to make sure we can all get through what's going to be a pretty hard winter," she said. "It's a first step. It's not the end of the game."