The Maine Legislature cleared the way for $450 relief checks to help residents struggling with high winter heating costs Wednesday before decamping to the Augusta Civic Center to hear Democratic Gov. Janet Mills outline her priorities for her second term.
Savoring a victory for her $473 million heating assistance package, the governor declared ‘hope is very much alive.’
Mills, the first woman to serve as governor in Maine, made hope a theme of her speech, saying the struggles during the pandemic showed Mainers are resilient.
‘Hope is about finding new and innovative ways to solve our problems, using the ingenuity and courage we rediscovered within ourselves these last few years,’ she said.
Mills said that over the next four years she will focus on the workforce shortage, housing crisis, high energy costs, opioid epidemic and child welfare, along with strengthening the economy.
She made her remarks to a joint session of lawmakers and top state officials after being sworn into office by Senate President Troy Jackson and joining her granddaughters in delivering the Pledge of Allegiance.
The governor highlighted the state’s growing diversity by featuring a chorus made up of young female immigrants, mostly from African nations, and a drumming and singing group made up of Native Americans. Maine Poet Laureate Julia Bouwsma and Richard Blanco, an inaugural poet for former President Barack Obama, also addressed the assembly.
The gathering followed the approval of the heating aid bill, which became an early test of bipartisanship for the new Legislature after Senate Republicans delayed passage to ensure a public hearing.
Leaders of both Democratically controlled chambers quickly assembled a temporary appropriations committee to hear public testimony before unanimously endorsing the bill two weeks ago.
Republicans praised the public hearing, but some of them continued to express opposition on Wednesday, questioning the cost of the package and whether some money could have gone to other priorities.
Sen. Matt Pouliot, of Augusta, called the committee session a ‘dog and pony show,’ and Sen. Jim Libby, of Cumberland, called it a ‘haphazard bill.’ Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, said the bill ‘could be, and should be, better’ but ultimately voted for the bill.
Others insisted the bill, mostly funded by a surplus, was the fastest way to get help to those struggling with high energy bills.
Both chambers passed the bill with a two-thirds majority to be enacted as emergency legislation, allowing the state to begin mailing the checks in a matter of weeks. Mills wasted no time in signing the bill ahead of the inaugural ceremony.
‘Direct financial relief will be in Mainers’ mailboxes by the end of the month.’ House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said.
The package calls for nearly $400 million to be used to provide $450 payments to an estimated 880,000 residents. It provides an additional $40 million to bolster the federal heating assistance program that’s administered through community action partnerships.
It also includes $10 million for emergency fuel assistance and $21 million to bolster an emergency relief housing fund to help people experiencing homelessness.
Mills, 75, defeated former Republican Gov. Paul LePage in November to win a second term in office.
She told lawmakers, ‘our job is far from finished,’ and urged them ‘to choose action over acquiescence and apathy, to make decisions grounded in experience with an eye to the future, and always to be a part of something larger than ourselves.’