A month after it was put on the docket, the Legislature swiftly passed and Gov. Janet Mills signed a “Winter Energy Relief” bill on its regular opening day, Jan. 4.

The $474 million spending proposal, LD 3, was a curious production, about which more in a moment.

It was also curious how it became law. On organizing day, Dec. 7, newly sworn-in lawmakers found themselves voting to spend more money than in almost any bill except a biennial budget.

AUGUSTA, ME – JANUARY 11: Maine Gov. Janet Mills talks to reporters about the new budget proposal during an availability Wednesday January 11, 2023 in the Cabinet Room of the Maine State House in Augusta. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan/Staff Photographer) Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Things were proceeding smoothly until the new Senate Republican Leader, Trey Stewart, blew things up by leading his caucus in opposition. Though numbering 13 members, the caucus is just large enough to block emergency legislation, which must pass by two-thirds.

Stewart had already negotiated more generous income limits for the $450 checks that were the bill’s main feature – up to $200,000 per family – but insisted there must be more “process.”

So there was; a five-hour hearing before a temporary Appropriations Committee that changed the bill not at all. Stewart and a handful of other GOP senators then provided enough votes for passage, saying his object had been achieved.


Other than the shadow boxing that’s always going on between the parties, it’s hard to agree with that assessment, or that it was worth the delay.

It’s still puzzling, though, why this Governor’s bill took the form it did. For a plan aimed at “energy relief” is was misdirected – more than 80% of the money went to the $450 checks, closely resembling the $850 checks last year that distributed most of a state surplus.

And it’s hard to find the predicted emergency in the middle of an unseasonably warm January, though of course we could still have frigid weeks ahead. The background was a predicted steep rise in heating oil prices to $5 or even $6 a gallon that we now see will not occur.

In October, the average price stood at $4.38 – high, but in real terms not a record – then rose and came down, and is currently $4.48.

Heating oil, like all petroleum products, has notorious price swings. In 2004, the October price was $1.76 and rose to $3.71 by 2012, then plunged again, to $1.92 by 2016.

One reason this fall’s prices seemed so high was that as recently as 2020, heating oil cost just $1.83.


The same moderation of winter pricing is reflected at the gasoline pump. The state average last January before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was $3.41; it’s now $3.36.

There never was much possibility that Mainers would freeze in the streets. We help each other through any real emergency, since there are more resources than just state government’s.

So what was this legislation about?

A significant clue was provided by Finance Commissioner Kirstin Figueroa at the bill’s hearing when she referred to it as “one-time money.” In the administration’s view, this was basically leftover federal pandemic funds, meaning the rationale for the $450 checks was the same as for the $850 checks.

To gain legislative approval quickly, however, it had to be packaged as something else – “winter energy relief,” and it worked. Every Democrat voted for the bill, even though many said privately they didn’t necessarily like its contents.

The remaining question is whether spending so much up front could come back to haunt us if the economy goes into recession. The preliminary answer seems to be no.


Wall Street has been almost begging for a recession, since post-pandemic wage increases have done something once unthinkable – they’ve shifted the financial balance away from capital and toward labor, something we haven’t seen since the 1970s.

2022 was a bad year for stocks, and 2023 may not be much better, but for those who work in service sector jobs, it has to be good news.

Even economists who’ve predicted a recession as the Federal Reserve fights inflation have put it off to the latter part of the year. And it’s quite possible we’ll achieve a “soft landing” without a recession, taming inflation and leaving wage gains and high employment in place.

Now that the opening drama is past, lawmakers can get a fresh start on what they really came to Augusta to do.

Expectations for the Legislature are higher this year than for some time. One biennial session was wiped out by the initial pandemic surge, the next severely truncated.

Other than meeting fully in person, at last, there are other reasons why important bills may be passed. We’ll take a closer look at those prospects next week.



Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at [email protected]



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