Maine Senate

Senate President Troy Jackson, D- Aroostook, conducts business at the State House in Augusta on Tuesday. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills’ storm relief bill appears to be at risk of falling victim to a wide-ranging legislative brawl over the supplemental budget.

A bipartisan group of Senators that now includes Senate President Troy Jackson wants to load the bill with a bevy of costly riders – which is estimated to bring the bill’s total cost to $117 million – that have nothing to do with the $60 million infrastructure repair that Mills asked lawmakers to approve as an emergency measure a month ago. The additions include raises for education techs, new behavioral health programs, and higher, non-lapsing funding for nursing homes and veterans homes.

But House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, and Mills want a storm relief bill that isn’t weighed down with all that extra spending. They want to keep the other spending contained within the official supplemental budget bill, which was voted out of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee Monday. And while Mills had wanted infrastructure repair money to go out fast, the House was so intent on adopting a stripped-down storm relief bill that it appeared willing to give up hopes of adopting the bill as an emergency measure.

Because it was the emergency aspect of Mills’ storm relief bill – intended to help coastal communities rebuild working waterfronts in time to save Maine’s profitable summer lobster season – that left the bill vulnerable to those seeking to load the bill up. An emergency bill requires a supermajority of votes in both chambers. Without an emergency preamble, the storm relief bill would not become effective until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns Wednesday. That means money wouldn’t even hit the streets to hire contractors until after lobster season had begun.

The Senate had its say on Friday and Monday. Most recently, the Senate voted 23-11 with all 13 Republicans and 10 of the Senate’s 22 Democrats in favor of a storm relief amendment from Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford. That is an increase of three votes from its Monday 20-13 vote, when only seven Democrats joined Republicans to support Bennett’s amendment. Jackson is one of those to change his vote over the weekend.

On Tuesday, the House clapped back. It departed from usual practice and did not act on the Senate-amended bill, but instead receded – revoked its prior action in the face of conflicting action on a bill by the other chamber – and voted to amend Mills’ bill itself. Its amendment stripped the emergency preamble from the bill, which means that lobstermen will have to wait for their wharf repair but lawmakers won’t be able to hold the bill hostage and demand support for its bevy of spending requests outside of the traditional budget process.


The vote to remove the emergency preamble – and avoid the Senate’s amendment altogether – passed 76-69.

Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said he and all other Maine lobstermen are disappointed by the House vote.

“The people of Maine need this money to go out faster,” Faulkingham said. “The bill before us today was an emergency bill that would get the money out and I think it’s disappointing that we couldn’t come to an agreement to get this money out to the people who need it. This bill has already sat way too long. It’s already sat for four weeks or longer since the storms wrecked the wharves on the coast of Maine.”

That leaves the two chambers in conflict over a major bill with very little time for lawmakers to find a way out of what some are privately describing as an ugly game of political chicken. Such brinksmanship is not uncommon at the end of the legislative session, especially while high-profile bills such as the budget hang in the balance. Last year, Mills faced off with Talbot Ross, who was holding back certain bills in hopes of getting the governor’s support for a tribal sovereignty bill.


Bennett said he put forth the amendment because Mills had asked him to find a way to secure the two-thirds majority support needed to implement the storm relief bill immediately.


A cottage floats in New Harbor on Jan. 11, after it separated from its pilings during a severe rainstorm on Jan. 10. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“She asked us to find, quote, ‘middle ground’ on the disaster relief plan. So yes, this amendment deals with disaster relief,” Bennett said during a floor speech Friday. “This measure also deals with crises in other areas, known crises.”

“We have a crisis in our long-term care in this state. We all know it,” he continued. “We all know that we have a crisis in mental health that we need to address. So this measure before us funds those three large initiatives because they’re all crises.”

Republicans were willing to drop their concerns about tapping the state’s rainy day fund for the $60 million for storm relief – they believe the fund is meant to stabilize the budget, not bankroll an otherwise worthy community relief bill – if the Democrats were willing to include long-term funding for mental health services and long-term nursing and veterans homes.

With that, Bennett said he was able to deliver what Mills wanted, a supermajority, even if she didn’t like how he did it. He noted the mental health and nursing home programs were all Democrat-supported bills.

In a statement Tuesday Mills made it clear she wasn’t happy.

“This is another 11th-hour, multimillion-dollar amendment crafted outside of the budget process, behind closed doors, without public input, and without the consultation of me, the speaker of the House, or my administration,” Mills said. “It entangles more than $100 million of unrelated, ongoing spending with my storm relief bill, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid when I introduced it as a standalone bill months ago.”


She continued: “Worse, the amendment will blow a hole in the state budget and force lawmakers next year to cut vital programs – like 55% of education. We need to get serious. Time is running out for the legislative session. The Legislature needs to pass a clean storm relief bill and pass the supplemental budget approved by the Appropriations Committee yesterday.”


After some debate, Bennett’s first amendment passed 20-13 on Monday, approved by all 13 Republicans and seven of the Senate’s 22 Democrats. Bennett withdrew that amendment later in the day, causing some opponents to think he might be bowing to pressure from Mills, only to submit a second amendment that added more spending to the bill by increasing the size of the raises given to educational techs.

Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, said any inconsistencies with the supplemental budget bill that passed earlier that day could be worked out.

The amendment would fund many worthy programs that Democrats support, she said. And it would give the emergency storm relief bill a chance at the supermajority of votes needed to pass as an emergency measure, supporters noted behind the scenes.

After all, a bill can have many reasons for being, Grohoski said – to shine a light on a problem, to give the public a chance to be heard or, as is the case with this bill, to send a message.


“It’s sending a message to the other chamber, to the chief executive, to the people we represent,” she said. “I think (this amendment) sends all the right messages to all the right people.”

Grohoski elaborated on that message Tuesday: this group of senators recognizes that many things are urgent and need legislative solutions, not just winter storm relief, and that lawmakers should jump on any opportunity to address these emergencies, not just do what they are told to do, what is expected to be done or what has always been done before.

The seven Democrats who voted for Bennett’s amendment Friday were: Grohoski; Donna Bailey, of Saco; Joseph Baldacci, of Bangor; Ben Chipman, of Portland; Craig Hickman, of Winthrop; Tim Nangle, of Windham; and Mike Tipping, of Orono. On Monday, Nangle changed his vote to no, but Jackson, Joe Rafferty, of Kennebunk, and Cameron Reny, of Round Pond, changed their former no votes to yes votes. Democrat Mark Lawrence of Eliot also voted yes Monday, but had been excused from the Friday vote.

Jackson didn’t respond to questions sent to his office about why he changed his vote on the storm relief amendment, or if he supported the finance committee’s supplemental budget bill.

But a spokeswoman said Tuesday in a text that “amending the measure to garner the necessary bipartisan two-thirds support seemed like the best way to get these funds to impacted communities as quickly as possible – something both the governor and the commissioner (of Marine Resources) have made clear is important.

Mills’ cabinet echoed the governor’s outrage on Tuesday morning when news spread that the Senate group had doubled down on its intent to load the storm relief bill up.


“This amendment is an insult to fiscal responsibility and entirely ignores the consistently voiced concerns of this administration to prepare for the future of our state in the face of plateauing state revenues,” said Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. “I can guarantee you this: if this amendment were to pass, it would immediately sink the state budget. This is not good governing.”

“While the Senate is playing politics with the governor’s bill to rebuild Maine’s devastated coastal infrastructure, it is Maine fishermen, seafood dealers, aquaculturists, coastal towns and dock owners who are paying the price and struggling to stay above water,” said Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. “The damage from this winter’s storms has put them at enormous economic risk. … This is exactly the type of move that fishermen hate from politicians.”

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the supplemental budget bill already includes thoughtful and sustainable support for hospitals, nursing homes and behavioral health providers.

“Virtually all of the health proposals included in this last-minute amendment – which is oddly tacked onto the storm relief package – ignore improvements made through the legislative process, are inequitable to most hospitals and nursing homes, and run counter to the publicly informed MaineCare rate reform process,” Lambrew said. “Put simply, this amendment includes ill-considered spending and excludes initiatives critical to advancing the health of Maine residents.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association also came out against the amendment Tuesday and urged lawmakers to pass a stripped-down storm relief bill quickly.

“Estimates are that 60% of Maine’s working waterfront infrastructure was lost or severely damaged during January’s storms,” the group said in a statement. “This is a precious commodity that fishermen depend on to safely move bait, fuel and other supplies to their vessels and to unload their catch. If fishermen do not have adequate safe access to the water, they cannot fish. The funding proposed by Governor Mills is critical. Our fishing industry will be facing a disaster if we are not able to rebuild critical infrastructure in time for the upcoming fishing season.”

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