AUGUSTA — Legislative Democrats led by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, Sen. Chip Curry, D-Belfast, and Rep. Raegan LaRochelle, D-Augusta, unveiled a plan to make sure Maine people can afford to heat their homes amid a volatile energy market at a press conference on Wednesday. Lawmakers were joined by Megan Hannan of Maine Community Action Partnership.
This suite of legislation would provide direct rate relief, cut bureaucratic red tape for existing energy relief programs, and convene a stakeholder to weigh in on strategies to rein in prices and prevent future sky-high increases.
“Last week I held a town hall meeting in the heart of the St. John Valley. The number one issue that came up was the high cost of energy from electric to gas, oil and propane. Steep increases in the price of natural gas have made heating homes much more challenging this winter, driving up electric rates and making it more difficult for working families and older Mainers to get by,” said President Jackson. “Maine people expect solutions from their elected officials, not excuses or finger-pointing. That’s why Legislative Democrats have come together to provide relief now and lower prices in the long term. With this plan, we can ensure that Mainers can afford to not just stay in their homes but heat their homes and keep the lights on while also providing for their families. We can also make sure small business owners can afford to pay their energy bills, keep their doors open and contribute to our economy.”
Legislation from President Jackson – LD 2010, “An Act to Help Maine Residents with High Electricity Costs” focuses on more immediate relief by establishing a tax rebate program for certain electricity ratepayers. The current proposal would provide a $1,000 tax rebate for residential ratepayers and $2,500 tax rebate for businesses with high energy usage. This measure will be scheduled for a public hearing in the coming week.
“The problem of energy affordability is complex, but our drive to fix it is straightforward. We believe no Mainer should struggle to heat their home, that no one should have to choose between putting food on the table or keeping the lights on. That’s why I sponsored LD 1913, ‘An Act To Review Strategies for Improving Utility Rate Affordability and To Provide Utility Relief,’” said Sen. Vitelli. “This bill would help provide immediate and tangible assistance to Mainers who are struggling now, while giving us the tools to plan for energy affordability in the future.”
Legislation from Sen. Vitelli – LD 1913, “An Act To Review Strategies for Improving Utility Rate Affordability and To Provide Utility Relief” – directs the Office of the Public Advocate to convene a stakeholder group to review utility rates and come up with a plan to ensure Mainers aren’t hit with shocking price hikes as a result of fossil fuel price volatility. The measure will be the subject of a work session in the coming weeks.
“Working families and older Mainers shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to access heating assistance. Maine Community Action Programs do incredible work, but the current rules governing the heating assistance program aren’t working for these organizations or the Maine people or the community they are trying to help,” said Sen. Curry. “LD 1966 would simply require MaineHousing to come up with an online system for local program operators and administrators to accept applications for the program beginning next year. While the global energy market is complicated and efforts to rein in prices will take time, lawmakers shouldn’t hesitate to make sure heating assistance programs actually work for Maine people. It’s about cutting red tape and providing some much-needed relief while we work together to solve the larger, more complicated problems.”
LD 1966, “An Act To Facilitate Access to Heating Assistance” from Sen. Curry, directs MaineHousing to require local program operators and administrators to process applications for heating assistance through the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) online and get this assistance to Maine people as quickly as possible. The proposal earned unanimous, bipartisan support in the Legislature’s Housing and Labor Committee yesterday.
“People all across Maine are facing the impossibly difficult decision of whether they should pay for heating or pay for groceries,” said Rep. LaRochelle. “No one should have to make a decision like that. I am proud to be sponsoring a bill, LD 2006, that offers a solution to the many Mainers who are eligible for home heating assistance through the Maine State Housing Authority but, due to staffing issues and out-of-date systems, are having to go a long time before receiving the assistance they badly need this winter. LD 2006 would help make the process more efficient so folks can get the assistance they need when they need it.”
LD 2006, “An Act to Improve the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program” from Rep. LaRochelle, directs the MaineHousing to establish the HEAP Administrative Efficiency Fund and to use state-provided funds to improve application waiting and approval times by hiring temporary workers, purchasing technology or contracting with a third party. The funds may also be used for providing resources to establish a long-term system to efficiently process HEAP applications in future years. The measure received a public hearing yesterday and will be the subject of a work session in the coming week.
Earlier today, MaineHousing announced that the agency will increase the allowed benefit amount for its Energy Crisis Intervention Program, a subset of HEAP meant to help Mainers experiencing an immediate heating crisis.
“Recognizing the impact these dramatically increasing prices of heating fuels are having on Maine households, we have decided to substantially boost the limit on emergency fuel benefits for eligible households from $600 to $1,400,” said MaineHousing Director Daniel Brennan. “While no time is a good time for an enormous increase in the cost of heat, we are somewhat fortunate this is happening as we are exiting winter and when we have the federal resources available to help those most in need. We are grateful for the ongoing support from our state and federal lawmakers and appreciate the actions the Maine Legislature is currently taking to help improve our heating assistance programs.”
Megan Hannan of Maine Community Action Partners (MeCAP) spoke at the press conference about this announcement from MaineHousing, the importance of Maine’s heating programs and the commitment of local community action programs to get assistance out to Mainers in need.
“This is a complex program, and in ensuring that it is administered correctly and with full integrity, it takes time. We have, together, worked on ways to faithfully administer the program more easily and have always had our customers – the people who need and use HEAP and the other services that are gained through it – at the center,” said Hannan. “Together, we can make this happen.”
Both MaineHousing and MeCAP have worked together with the Maine Legislature to cut red tape and eliminate dated policies that prevent Mainers from getting this assistance.