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 on Wednesday.
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.
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. 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 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.