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‘Life and death’: Community groups outraged as Mills’ heating plan is rejected by GOP

By James Corrigan

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    BATH, Maine (WMTW) — The Maine state Senate on Wednesday rejected Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency heating relief plan, a move that community action groups say will put Maine people in danger this winter as heating oil remains over $5 per gallon.

“We’re all in this,” said Claire Berkowitz, the CEO of Midcoast Maine Community Action. “We’re all seeing our neighbors face this daunting winter that’s in front of us with high heating costs, and that supplemental payment would help get at least 100 gallons, if not more for a household. And people might think that’s not a lot. But that’s a lot for a household.”

The Maine House had approved the bill 125-16, but no Republicans in the state Senate voted for the bill. The votes were 21-8 in favor of the bill, three votes short of the 24 it needed to pass as an emergency measure with a two-thirds majority.

The governor’s plan includes $450 rebate checks for taxpayers earning up to $100,000 a year and couples earning up to $200,000, That would benefit 880,000 residents, or 92% of Maine taxpayers.

The plan also includes $40 million for the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), for low-income residents, $10 million in additional emergency home heating assistance to be distributed by the community action programs that administer HEAP, and $21 million to house homeless people.

The plan would be paid for using a projected revenue surplus, along with unspent public health funds due to be replenished by federal funds, and unspent state funds in last year’s budget.

Senate Republicans cited the rushed nature of the emergency measure as a reason for the no vote, and casted doubt on to the emergency nature of the bill.

“Perhaps we should just declare a public emergency again,” said state Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Auburn). “Close the legislature again. Invest the chief executive with the legislative power again. Make [Mills] the dictator of Maine again.”

The executive director of the group overseeing community action programs that administer HEAP benefits says that delaying the bill and its funds leaves Maine families in limbo as winter approaches.

“I understand their concerns that this came up quickly,” said Megan Hanna, the executive director of Maine Community Action Partnership. “It’s an emergency bill, but the reality is we’re in an emergency situation. Putting this off until January or even further could mean the difference between life and death for some people.”

Maine House Republicans had urged their colleagues to put politics aside to allow Mainers to heat their homes.

“All you need to do is talk with your neighbors and ask them, have they been able to fill their tanks for the rest of the winter?” said Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford). “Why would we want to put the perfect in front of the good?”

The issue of heating oil had been a lynchpin for former Gov. Paul LePage’s campaign to retake the governorship this year. LePage was defeated by Mills in November.

“I urge you, Janet Mills, November is going to be here soon when we need to use our furnaces,” LePage told Maine’s Total Coverage earlier this year. “You need to figure this out, put some money aside, help subsidize heating oil for people on fixed incomes. I urge you, we do not want to lose Maine people because they can’t heat their homes.”

Mills announced Tuesday executive action she is taking to provide one-time payments of $500 to about 13,000 households to help pay their heating costs.

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