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The proposed heating support package moving through the Maine Legislature isn't perfect. These are not exactly the calculations we would have made if we were in charge of Augusta. We continue to believe that should happen when lawmakers return this week.
Here's the problem: No one has complete control of state government, even though Democrats run the state House and Blaine's House.
Achieving the goal requires cooperation between parties, within parties, between the legislative and executive powers. This is especially true for something like this heating aid proposal, which is an emergency measure that requires two-thirds support in both the Maine House of Representatives and the Maine Senate.
Gov. Janet Mills previously worked with lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, as her office drafted the package. House Republicans overwhelmingly supported the bill in a Dec. 7 vote after successfully raising the income limit for people who receive $450 in direct heating assistance checks.
However, the proposal was blocked due to the united opposition of all Republicans in the Senate who were present for this vote. His stated reasons for opposition included a desire for transparency and public hearings on the nearly $475 million proposal.
Frustration and guilt followed this initial failure. A shutdown seemed likely, despite the obvious need to help miners with heat and shelter during these cold months, and the recent forecast of another state budget surplus.
Still, legislative leaders from both parties came together to applaud the creativity in these early stages of the new legislature: the temporary appointment of members of the Appropriations Committee to review and gather evidence on the bill. This led to lengthy committee hearings on December 21, in which the public and the Mills administration testified for several hours. After discussion by committee members, the bipartisan body unanimously approved the aid package.
Critically, Senate Republican leader Trey Stewart voted in favor, saying he thinks there will be enough support to pass the measure if it hits the Senate again.
"We understand the urgency," Stewart said. "So we're willing to swallow a number of provisions that are not favorable to us in terms of what we're going to do."
Old Town Democratic Committeeman Jim Dill, a committee member, shared his pragmatic message before voting to move the proposal forward. He said he didn't agree with the higher income limits but didn't want to delay the package because of it.
"I just want to state publicly that I think the limits are too high and I would definitely like to lower them," Dill said. But for tonight's sake, I won't go there.
House Speaker Billy Bob Falkingham, a Republican, added that it would have been different if he had written the Heating Assistance Act, "but we have come together to make a commitment for the benefit of the people of Maine." .
In other words, the legislators were unwilling to make the enemy of the good the best.
This will hopefully set a more cooperative tone for the new legislature. This should be the beginning of closer bilateral cooperation.
As noted during the hearing, Maine cannot move from one cliff to another in emergency shelters. Managers should always deal with crises and should not postpone them again and again. Legislators and the governor must work with communities to develop a long-term plan. This should include more living space of all kinds. (At the same time, without such a plan, another Maine winter would be the worst possible time to phase out emergency housing assistance.)
We saw people saying the December 21st session was a waste of time and learned little. We do not agree. While it is true that the proposal has not changed and we would also like to see a tightening of the income requirements for assistance so that the money can be better directed to those who need it most, we have learned something very important.
We learned that members of the new legislature are willing to overcome political obstacles and frustrations to get things done. It hasn't always been pretty, and the bill has yet to pass both chambers, but the results of the hearings set lawmakers on this path. That's a victory for pragmatism over politics, and that's a victory for the Meiners.