By Sen. Trey Stewart
(Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.)
I have received many questions about why Senate Republicans said no to Gov. Janet Mills’ “Emergency Winter Heating Relief Plan” on Wednesday. Many wondered why we could go against such a worthy notion of providing relief to Mainers who have been impacted by higher heating oil prices and – come January – electricity costs.
We’ve been saying for over a year that the policies of the Biden Administration have led us to where we are today. States have been left in the wake of those failed policies to take care of the people impacted by such failures at the federal level. But that’s not what this vote was about.
First, my colleagues and I completely understand the urgency of the situation. That’s why we’ve asked hard questions and tried just as hard to get answers about the proposal to ensure it’s actually going to help those in need. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get many of those answers and other evidence showed that not all is as it was being portrayed.
For instance, the Mills Administration said that relief checks for middle-income residents could go out anytime between mid-January and March. If you’re in a pinch right now, that won’t help you. In fact, I know of many people who still haven’t received their $850 check from the previous relief program; we’re now supposed to follow the same model for those in crisis who are running out of oil now? We can do better.
Second, we learned from MaineHousing that the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) fund supporting the most vulnerable among us is fully funded through July 2023. There’s no real sense of urgency among our counterparts to get relief to where it really matters – those who have been working hard these past two years and don’t qualify for anything at the federal or state level.
Nor does the entire $473 million of new spending actually go toward the “energy crisis” it is being sold as – several provisions have nothing to do with energy at all. We can do better.
Third, you should know where this money is coming from. Yes, some of it is from the state over-taxing people and pulling in more revenue than was budgeted. However, over $100 million is coming from the Medicaid program that is supposed to fund programs like nursing homes that are roughly $40 million in the red across the state and continue to close.
We currently have to send individuals with traumatic brain injuries out of state for services because facilities are underfunded. Moreover, the Fund for a Healthy Maine, of which we constantly hear needs more funding for its important work, is being raided to spend that money on other programs. We can do better.
Now, I’m not suggesting that I know all the right answers – far from it. That’s why I rely on smarter people who know these subjects much better than I do to help inform my decision-making. That enlightenment comes directly from the public hearing process where all of these stakeholders can share what will happen if we make decisions either way. And spending a half billion dollars on the literal first day of the Legislature without any oversight, transparency or accountability is a recipe for disaster.
Our “ask” was very simple – if you want our support for this massive measure, we need to ensure the public has input and we don’t impact other critically important aspects of state programs. In fact, the first vote to send the bill to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee garnered bipartisan support in the Senate because it’s a very reasonable request. Unfortunately, the remaining Democratic majority defeated it. We can do better.
We’ve said consistently that we are happy to support a package to relieve struggling Maine families, and enact it with speed, transparency and accountability. We have sent our AFA Committee member selection to Senate President Troy Jackson to help him convene the committee and hold the hearing as quickly as possible, which could happen as early as next week. And we must fund the remainder of the $850 relief check program and protect Medicare resources that are badly needed across Maine.
A spending package of this size deserves transparency – you’re owed that. And you also deserve the truth and reality behind what’s happening here. Passing LD 1 on Wednesday or weeks from now won’t change when people will benefit from this bill – it’ll be next year before there’s any meaningful impact at this point.
Still, we can do better.
Senator Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, is the Senate Republican Leader and is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing the constituents of District 2. He has served as the Senate Republican Lead for the Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee and the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee.