Maine Wire | by Steve Robinson | December 6, 2022
UPDATE: Originally reported on Friday, Dec. 2, this story accurately predicted the nature and scope of the first major legislative initiative of Gov. Janet Mills 2nd term. On Tuesday, the Blaine House sent out an email touting the plan and confirming that she has asked the Legislature to pass the bill on an emergency basis on Wednesday. Mills is asking for $21 million, rather than the earlier reported $15 million, for housing assistance. In addition to the emergency bill provisions, Mills is taking executive action to distribute $500 heating aid payments to another 13,000 households.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills has privately asked state lawmakers to approve a massive new spending package before the end of the year, State House sources tell The Maine Wire.
The vote may take place on Wednesday, the same day new lawmakers are sworn in, meaning the new Democratic Majorities in both Houses of the Legislature would have rookie pols vote on a mammoth spending bill with barely enough time to read it.
Although the final details are still being resolved, the structure of the first major spending package of Mills’ second term are coming into view. The central theme is using leftover federal COVID-19 relief money and the State’s budget surplus to offset extraordinary increases in the costs of home heating, housing, and inflation.
The price tag for the Democratic spending proposal may exceed $440 million.
Much of the spending is intended to offset the absence of federal funding that flowed into Maine’s coffers during the COVID-19 pandemic but has now run out. Programs old and new have seen federal funding dwindle, and unless the State fills the gap, the programs will end or be unable to function at the same capacity as last year.
Sources say Mills is asking to send as much as $40,000,000 to the Maine Housing Authority to supplement the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which the Authority administers. That funding level would allow LIHEAP to provide a similar level of funding to what recipients got last year thanks to a boost from the federal government. Although the LIHEAP program has struggled with application waiting lists and bureaucratic delays this year, Maine Housing announced this week that they had finally created an online application after the Legislature passed a bill requiring them to do so in April.
Also on home heating help, the governor wants to send $10,000,000 through Maine Housing to the Community Action Projects, the non-profits that help administer many state programs, for the emergency fuel assistance program. Whereas LIHEAP functions more like a welfare benefit for home heating costs, the emergency program is a stopgap measure for Mainer’s at imminent risk of freezing to death because they cannot afford to heat their homes.
The request comes as heating oil prices hover around record highs in Maine.
On the housing front, Mills is looking for a short-term bandaid for the housing crisis that has been fomenting since the summer due to the expiration of funds for the Emergency Rental Assistance program.
Maine Housing began signaling as early as June that the program was going to run out of money, but the governor and the legislature failed to make a plan — or communicate with recipients of the benefit — to wind down or continue the program.
Maine Housing managed to make the federal funding last through the end of November, just past the election, but without new funding municipalities across Maine may have to deal with mass evictions.
More than 500 families, many of them asylum seekers and refugees, are at risk of being evicted from hotels and motels in southern Maine where they’ve been living with government assistance for a year or more.
Although some are receiving General Assistance through a town or city, many have been receiving the federal ERA benefit, which ran out of money in November. People familiar with the hotel accommodations are expecting the arrangement to end come Jan. 1, 2023, though they don’t know what happens after that.
The expiration of ERA funds also stands to adversely impact more than 10,000 Maine citizens who have been receiving the benefit to help make rent or who live in households that have. Emergency housing funding has been a major priority for the Maine Municipal Association, which warned last month that municipalities lack the means to deal with a crisis of benefit-seekers that might result from mass evictions.
Mills has asked for as much as $15,000,000 to support emergency shelters and to continue paying rent for low-income citizens and asylum seekers.
That funding wouldn’t cover the estimated $182 million necessary to continue the program for a year, but it would avoid the crisis of mass evictions in the middle of a Maine winter.
The biggest item Mills is asking for, though, is another round of direct payments to Mainers.
Mills has asked for $370,000,000 to send out yet another batch of checks to more than 800,000 Mainers.
The checks she wants to hand out will amount to $450 per recipient, and potentially more for lower income families.
The administration is also asking for another $4.4 million to complete the pre-Election Day $850 checks Mills sent with a campaign-style letter from herself. Those pre-election checks could have been delivered earlier and for less cost if sent electronically, like the earlier COVID-19 benefits.
Without an election coming up, it’s unclear whether Mills will opt for the more efficient electronic delivery of payments or send another check with a signed letter from herself.
On the regulatory side, Mills appears willing to grant a waiver to Maine oil dealers to import and sell non-low sulfur home heating oil. Prior to the election, Mills said she needed to ask permission to issue this waiver from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
All told, the new spending Mills is requesting amounts to more than $440,000,000.