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Other top priorities added to storm relief bill as lawmakers align behind budget changes


Other top priorities added to storm relief bill as lawmakers align behind budget changes

Apr 14, 2024 | 6:11 am ET
By Emma Davis
Other top priorities added to storm relief bill as lawmakers align behind budget changes
The Senate chamber in the Maine State House in Augusta. (Jim Neuger/Maine Morning Star)

The Senate on Friday night passed a heavily amended version of an emergency storm relief proposal from Gov. Janet Mills — which now aims to address far more crises than storm damage. 

Before Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) presented the amendment around 9:45 p.m. Friday, Republican and Democratic legislative leadership as well as policy advocates met throughout the week to craft the plan — using the most critical issues Maine is facing to chart a bipartisan path forward. 

“The centerpiece of my amendment, which is rather lengthy to a short bill, was to actually amplify on the disaster relief and deal with not only that but crises in long-term care and in mental health,” Bennett told Maine Morning Star.

The amendment to LD 2225 also provides funding for veterans homes, easing hospital rate reform and setting a minimum wage for education technicians, among other key issues that have been put forth in separate bills this session, many already having cleared both chambers.

This now provides several paths the Legislature can take to fund some of the state’s most critical issues: funding them as individual bills with what’s left after the budget is set, approving the amended storm bill, or providing allocations for these issues in the budget. 

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The budget plan remains in flux as the clock is ticking ever closer to the end of session, which is scheduled to adjourn on Wednesday. 

“I’m hoping that by advancing this amendment that, somehow, when we adjourn on Wednesday, or the wee hours of Thursday, that we’ve taken care of these items,” Bennett said. 

While the behind-the-scenes bipartisan work for the amendment was underway, partisan battles played out in the public over the budget plan voted on by the majority of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in the early morning hours of April 6. 

In addition to some of the issues the amendment addresses, Republicans, as well as Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, criticized the committee’s proposed reversals to ongoing highway revenue and a tax relief effort for pensioners that were both negotiated to pass the biennial budget in 2023. They also pushed back on the committee’s plan to reduce dairy farm subsidies. 

Last week, Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) asked the Appropriations Committee to reopen the budget after widespread agreement among lawmakers on the need for reconsideration

Legislators on both sides of the aisle told Maine Morning Star that the collaboration in crafting the amendment — and the 20-13 vote it received in the Senate — demonstrates that both parties can be unified around the basic values they want in the budget. 

“It’s already sent a message to the House and to the Governor’s Office,” Sen. Joe Baldacci (D-Penobscot) told Maine Morning Star. “It signifies that building bipartisan budget priorities is still possible.”

Storm relief still draws from rainy day fund

The amended bill adopts the storm relief plan approved by the majority of the budget committee — $60 million to be pulled from the rainy day fund, with $50 million dedicated to repairs and $10 million for a business recovery and resilience fund to provide grants for businesses and organizations affected by severe weather events. 

The only change it makes is placing caps on how the $50 million can be spent. A maximum of $30 million can go toward coastal projects, such as piers that support fisheries, and the remainder must go toward non-coastal projects, such as issues of public safety — an attempt to ensure the funding is allocated evenly, Bennett said. 

While Republicans and Democrats agreed on the need to provide this storm relief, Bennett and the other Republicans on the budget committee voted against the plan because of its funding source.  

Democrats and Mills supported using the currently maxed out Budget Stabilization Fund, otherwise known as the rainy day fund, whereas Republicans wanted to use the state’s unappropriated surplus, after the Revenue Forecasting Committee estimated in March an additional $108 million in one-time revenue in the current biennium, 2024-25.

The amendment does not cave to the Republican minority on how to fund the relief, but it does propose using more than $63 million from the state’s unappropriated surplus to address other issues of priority to both parties. 

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A vehicle for many bills 

For most of the additions to LD 2225, Bennett adopted identical language from separate bills being considered this session, many of which have already been passed in the House and Senate. 

Mental health initiatives have been a bipartisan focus this session, particularly in light of the mass shooting in Lewiston last fall. 

Mental health providers backed a “resiliency package” of bills to provide timely and appropriate access to quality services across the state. The Appropriations Committee unanimously voted to fund several of the bills from the package, though Democrats opted to leave several out of the budget — largely those that would need long-term funding. 

Those votes had come as a surprise to some mental health advocates, who argued that sustainable solutions require ongoing appropriations and will save the state money in the long-term by helping people into recovery.

The amendment now includes the entirety of the package, except a social work loan repayment bill that will be dealt with differently because of its funding structure, said Betsy Sweet from the Behavioral Health Community Collaborative. 

“This resiliency package really fills in the gaps,” Sweet said, “so that we actually have a system where people don’t fall through the gaps of this continuum of care that Maine has actually been fantastic about creating but terrible at resourcing.” 

Sweet said Republican support of the package has been unexpected, but much welcomed, and shows “a broad recognition of how important this issue is.”  

The amendment also includes the mental health initiatives the budget committee had unanimously supported, notably a proposal from Talbot Ross, which already passed under the hammer in the House and Senate. 

This would establish a violence prevention program, build a stronger connection between 911 and the crisis 988 line, and fund two crisis receiving centers — one in Aroostook County and one in Penobscot County. These centers would be in addition to the one in Lewiston that Mills proposed funding. 

“This is all about having non-jail alternatives and also to make sure people actually get treatment,” said Baldacci, who chairs the Legislature’s Health Human Services Committee. “What I like about how the amendment was crafted is it really included pretty much everything that the Health Human Services Committee had passed either in a bipartisan manner or unanimously.”

As a means to assist long-term care facilities, the amendment provides $31 million to assist nursing homes in getting enough federal match dollars to fill their current $96 million budget shortfall. 

This gap is in part due to insufficient MaineCare reimbursements for patients. These rates are slated to change starting next year, and Mills included roughly $26 million to support this transition in her budget proposal, which representatives of the Maine Health Care Association said was not sufficient

The amendment adds additional funding as proposed in LD 2287, a last-minute bill introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) on Tuesday, which aims to use these funds to provide supplemental allowances for patients and ensure rural nursing facilities in particular are given the highest possible rates.

“I think it’s critical that we just solve this problem and we solve it long term in an ongoing way,” Bennett said.

Other MaineCare rate adjustments are also proposed in the amendment, such as to help small critical access hospitals that are expected to lose funding under the forthcoming rate reform.  

The amendment would also require that the MaineCare program reimburse veterans’ homes at higher rates. A prominent voice in pushing for more veterans’ home support, Sen. Bradlee Farrin (R-Somerset), told Maine Morning Star that he is pleased with the long-term funding change as outlined in the amendment.

Establishing a minimum wage for school support staff is a focus for education groups this session, which the amendment also incorporates but at a smaller level than LD 974, which was carried over from last session after passing both chambers but not getting funded. 

LD 974 proposes setting a minimum wage of 150% of the state minimum wage for education technicians and 125% for all other hourly school support staff. The amended LD 2225 cuts the plan to 125% for education technicians and 112.5% for all other support staff.

Rep. Edward Crockett (D-Portland), the sponsor of LD 974, did not respond to a request for comment by publication about whether he is supportive of the changes. Mills, Talbot Ross and Jackson also did not respond to requests for comment about the amendment by publication.