AUGUSTA, Maine - Gov. John Baldacci says the failure of Congress to pass emergency weatherization aid before taking five weeks off could trigger a special session of the Maine Legislature. But legislative leaders say any measure will have to be very limited in scope to gain broad support.
“I think we are going to have to act here because of the failure to act in Washington,” Baldacci said Friday. “I don’ t want to have to bring the Legislature in, but we may have to.”
Baldacci said what is driving the issue of a special session is the limited amount of weatherization funds available under current federal appropriations. He said about 5,000 homes could be winterized and last winter more than 48,000 homes were eligible for assistance.
“As I have said before, we are in an energy crisis,” he said. “We need to act in the short term to reduce oil consumption this winter, and we need to look to the long term and reduce our dependence on oil.”
But, Baldacci said, with a special session costing at least $40,000 a day he would like to avoid bringing lawmakers back to Augusta. He has ordered his top aides to work with the Public Utilities Commission and the Maine State Housing Authority and other state agencies to see whether any additional money can be shifted from existing programs without the need for legislative approval.
“I don’ t think we can wait, but we have to go through that exercise to see what we can do,” he said.
Legislative leaders recognize the need for additional weatherization funds as soon as possible, but share the governor’ s reluctance to have a special session. They recognize that once in session, lawmakers can consider anything a majority wants to consider and a planned one-day session could last longer and cost more. But Congress failing to act may crystallize support for a session.
“It is totally mind-boggling to me that the Congress is ignoring weatherization,” said Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, the Senate majority leader. “You don’ t weatherize your home when the snow is on the ground. Would we be willing to work in a special session to provide funds in the interim? We certainly are going to have to consider that.”
She said leaders have discussed the possibility of a session and want to avoid meeting this summer if possible. But, she said, with Congress not acting before taking five weeks off, they may have to act to provide needed weatherization funds.
Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, the Senate GOP floor leader, agreed but said Republicans would be very reluctant to go beyond dealing with the short-term weatherization issue in a special session.
“I think we need to do something,” she said. “But I think any state money for LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program] should wait until the new Legislature convenes in December.”
Weston said the state is facing serious economic problems and the GOP would not support raising taxes for anything. She said lawmakers will have to “set priorities” and cut planned spending to meet any emergency needs.
“I think we may have to do something,” said Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, the House majority leader. “I know the governor is looking at possible sources in the PUC and at the Housing Authority and we will have to wait and see what is available.”
She shared the frustration that Congress has not acted on weatherization, although she is hopeful additional funding for LIHEAP will be provided by Congress this fall.
“The problem is, we all need to be weatherizing now,” Pingree said.
Rep. Josh Tardy, R-Newport, the House GOP floor leader, shares the concern that Congress was not able to act last month on the weatherization funding. He said legislative leaders and the governor need to discuss all options to address the problem, including a special session.
“It is critically important that we address our weatherization objectives,” he said. “I am sure we will be discussing it as legislative leaders in the next few weeks.”
Baldacci said he believes some of the money in the state reserve funds, now close to $170 million, could be tapped for weatherization needs.
The governor said he would decide whether to call lawmakers into a special session by the end of the week. He said while Aug. 20 may be the best date, with the Senate already scheduled to meet in a confirmation session, legislative leaders will need to poll members on the best date for members.
“I do recognize the difficulty of getting everybody together in August,” he said.
Republicans in the U.S. Senate late last month blocked consideration of a bill that would nearly double federal aid to help the poor pay heating and air-conditioning bills.
Maine’s Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins expressed disappointment that the heating aid bill was sidetracked.