Maine’s U.S. Senate hopefuls agree some on virus relief, but not on scope
The coronavirus pandemic upended economic activities in Maine and across the U.S. While Maine has seen job gains over the past few months, the number of workers receiving unemployment is still more than double than at the peak of the Great Recession.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the federal government was quick to help, passing an unprecedented $2.2 trillion relief package that included expanded unemployment insurance, forgivable loans for small businesses and checks for low- and middle-income families. But Congress has stalled since then.
The Democratic-led House passed its own more than $3 trillion relief bill back in May, which the Senate declined to take up. Senate Republicans put forward their own $500 billion plan last week, which Democrats blocked, saying it was too small.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, co-authored a business loan program that has become one of the most widely supported parts of the recent raft of stimulus bills. She has broken with many in her party to call for more state and local aid and post office funding to little avail so far.
Here is where she and her opponents — House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, teacher Lisa Savage of Solon and retired financial planner Max Linn of Bar Harbor — stand on additional economic relief. They agree on some things, but break on scope and focus.
Collins was an early leader of the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program for small businesses that passed as part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package in March. More recently, she has advocated for another round of small business loans and has co-sponsored bills to supply aid to state and local governments and the U.S. Postal Service.
The Republican has frequently touted the forgivable loan program, which provided $2.3 billion in loans to 28,000 Maine businesses. The program has support on both sides of the aisle, though Democrats have called for more oversight and argued franchises owned by large chains and publicly held companies should have been excluded.
Collins has called for a second round of the program. A version offering loans to businesses with significant revenue drops would have been part of Senate Republicans’ most recent relief proposal. That bill also would have provided $300 per week in expanded unemployment benefits and forgiven an earlier $10 billion loan to the U.S. Postal Service, though it did not allocate $25 billion more to the agency, as Collins has proposed, or include her suggested $500 billion in aid for state and local governments.
The incumbent also favors continuing expanded unemployment benefits, but not at the $600 level provided by the March stimulus package. She and several other Republican senators proposed an alternate system in July that would continue benefits at a lower amount until states could provide 80 percent wage replacement. Congress ultimately failed to reach a deal.
Gideon supports some of the same policy ideas as Collins when it comes to coronavirus relief, including assistance for state and local governments and funding for the U.S. Postal Service. She has also called for additional pay for frontline health care workers and funding to help states with election administration.
The Democrat has been critical of Collins over parts of the Paycheck Protection Program, saying too much of the money went to special interests, but has called for the small business loan program to continue with changes. Her campaign said she would have voted against Senate Republicans’ most recent bill, which Collins supported, calling it “woefully inadequate.”
The Maine Legislature, where Gideon serves as House speaker, passed a flurry of coronavirus-related bills before adjourning in March, including expanding eligibility for unemployment and allocating $11 million for virus response.
Collins’ campaign has been critical of Gideon, however, over a loan of between $1 million and $2 million that the Democrat’s husband’s law firm got amid her critiques of the program and over the Legislature’s failure to convene this summer after Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on the scope of what they would take up when they returned. Lawmakers have held hearings and informally advised Gov. Janet Mills on administering federal funds.
Savage, a former Green candidate, has outlined a generous agenda for coronavirus relief, including direct payments of $2,000 per adult per month for the duration of the crisis, regardless of immigration status, as well as hazard pay for essential workers.
She has called for an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, but says it should target small businesses only, not national chains, and calls for “increased accountability” for money provided to corporations. Savage has also called for national rent and mortgage relief as well as increased funding for programs addressing food insecurity.
The Solon teacher also advocates for changes not directly related to economic relief, including releasing incarcerated individuals who are awaiting trial who were convicted of nonviolent offenses.
Linn has also advocated for direct payments to individuals, calling for $5,000 for every Maine family by June 2021 as one of the centerpieces of his campaign. His campaign said he wanted to focus on aid for Maine specifically because the state is one of the most affected by the coronavirus-induced shutdown, according to several studies. Passing aid through Congress for residents of one state — or a handful of states — would be unlikely in Washington, however.
The Bar Harbor businessman also says Congress should extend expanded unemployment benefits by $400 per week until the end of next year. He has also called for a revised version of the Paycheck Protection Program, limiting forgivable loans to businesses with 100 employees or fewer, and ensuring the loans are not subject to state taxes.