Sen. Trey Stewart: Why Senate Republicans haven’t asked for emergency heating aid — for now

Sen. Trey Stewart: Why Senate Republicans haven’t asked for emergency heating aid — for now

I’ve got a lot of questions about why Senate Republicans haven’t said Gov. Janet Mills’ Emergency Heating and Energy Relief Bill Last week. Many wondered why we could go against such a worthy notion, providing relief to Mainners who have been hit by high heating oil prices and – come January – electricity costs.

We’ve been saying for over a year that the policies of the Biden administration have gotten us to where we are today. States have been left in the wake of those failed policies to care for those affected by such failures at the federal level. But this vote was not about that.

First, my colleagues and I fully understand the seriousness of the situation. That’s why we’ve asked the tough questions and tried equally hard to get answers about the proposal to make sure it’s really going to help those in need. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get many of those answers and other evidence suggests that not everything is as it’s being painted.

For example, the Mill administration said relief checks for middle-income residents could go out anytime between mid-January and March. If you are in a crisis now, it will not help you. In fact, I know several people who have yet to receive their $850 check from the last relief program; Now we are supposed to follow the same model for those in distress who are now running out of oil? We can do better.

Second, we have learned from MainHousing that the low-income thermal energy assistance program supporting the most vulnerable among us is fully funded by July 2023. Two years and are not eligible for anything at the federal or state level.

Nor does the entire $473 million in new spending actually lead to the “energy crisis” as it is being sold—many of the provisions have nothing to do with energy. We can do better.

Third, you must know where this money is coming from. Yes, some of it is from over-taxing the people of the state and pulling in more revenue from the budget. However, more than $100 million is coming in from the Medicaid program, which is supposed to fund programs like nursing homes, which are about $40 million in the red statewide and continue to close.

We have to send people with traumatic brain injuries out of state for services because the facilities are few. In addition, the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which we constantly hear needs more money 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 smart people who know these subjects better than me to help me make my decisions. This knowledge comes directly from a public hearing process where all these stakeholders can share what would happen if we decide either way. And spending half a billion dollars on the legislature’s literal first day without any oversight, transparency or accountability is a recipe for disaster.

Our “ask” was very simple. If you want our support for this comprehensive measure, we need to make sure the public has input and that we don’t affect other 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 is a very reasonable request. Unfortunately, the remaining Democratic majority defeated it. We can do better.

We have consistently said that we are happy to support a package to provide relief to struggling Maine families and to implement it with speed, transparency and accountability. We have sent our AFA committee member selections to Senate President Troy Jackson to help convene the committee and conduct a hearing as soon as possible, which could be as early as next week. And we must fund the remaining $850 for a relief screening program and protect the Medicare resources that are so desperately needed in Maine.

An expenditure package of this size deserves transparency – you owe it. And you are also entitled to the truth and reality behind what is happening here. Passing LD 1 last week or a few weeks from now will not change when people will benefit from this bill – it will be next year before there is any meaningful impact at this point.

Still we can do better.

Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, is the Senate Republican leader.

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