AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci advanced a $12.6 million energy action plan Friday which he said makes a special legislative session to deal with the effects of high fuel prices unnecessary.

A state energy office survey nearly two weeks ago found that Maine’s average price for No. 2 heating oil was $4.42 per gallon, more than $1 a gallon higher than a year ago. Even though dealer prices appear to have dropped significantly since the survey was released, state officials say action is needed to make sure everybody can stay warm in their homes this winter.

The governor’s plan, which won immediate support from Democratic legislative leaders but drew criticism from the GOP Senate leader, includes new investments in weatherization, low-income heating assistance and alternative modes of transportation. It also includes voluntary four-day work schedules for state employees.

Of the total, $4.25 million would increase the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefit to $500 per eligible household. The current benefit is estimated at $415, Baldacci said.

Baldacci acknowledged repeated Republican calls for a special legislative session to transfer $10 million in surplus funds to LIHEAP. But the Democratic governor said a special session, at a cost of $40,000 per day, would be expensive.

“I’ve developed a strategy that will put those state dollars to work today,” the governor said at a news conference, which was also attended by state finance, housing, energy and legislative leaders. He said that while fuel prices have been going down recently, the state can’t take any chances.

“I’m not going to hesitate if we need to take additional steps. I think we’re recognizing more action much earlier than we did two years ago when the first order of business of the Legislature was to appropriate additional funds in January to put into a heating fund,” Baldacci said.

Under Baldacci’s plan, the Maine State Housing Authority will pull funds from future allocations to use immediately. The governor said he will work with lawmakers to reimburse those funds when they return to Augusta. The Legislature that is elected this November will be sworn in in December.

A $3.25 million emergency fund would be created in January to help families that are eligible for LIHEAP or are slightly above the eligibility threshold in the event of a fuel oil emergency.

Weatherization funding would be increased by $2 million, expanding the current program by about 500 homes. About 1,500 LIHEAP-eligible homes could draw from a $1 million fund to tune up their furnaces, and businesses could draw from a $1 million fund for energy conservation projects.

In the Department of Transportation, $1 million would be reallocated to increase public transportation promotion and use.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston, R-Montville, said she still believes having a special session before the cold weather sets in was a preferable route. Weston said drawing $10 million from the state’s rainy day fund to bolster LIHEAP, then passing a long-term energy strategy during the regular session, is a “cleaner” and “more transparent” means of addressing the issue of high energy prices than the “piecemeal” approach the governor was proposing.

“What level of crisis has to happen for them to take the money from the rainy day fund?” said Weston, who had not seen details of the governor’s plan.


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