Inside Augusta

Maine Legislature acts on COVID-19, gives Gov. Mills broad authority to respond

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The Maine Legislature adjourned Tuesday evening after a marathon session where the body spent most of its time working on emergency legislation related to the outbreak of COVID-19 and a supplemental budget, however it did address other work that appeared on the House and Senate calendars.

The omnibus COVID-19 response bill passed by lawmakers Tuesday evening gives flexibility to municipalities and schools to operate on their existing budgets if town meetings are delayed due to the virus, though it also expanded the powers of the executive branch over the June primary elections.

Here’s a recap of what lawmakers approved during yesterday’s legislative session:

Supplemental budget: Provides for more than $70 million in new spending, including an additional $38 million for public schools and sending $17 million to the state’s budget stabilization fund. Separately, $11 was set aside for emergency coronavirus response spending.

While this is roughly $50 million less than what the governor originally proposed, it does contain some spending unrelated to the state’s coronavirus response, including funds for career and technical education schools and the state’s community college system.

It’s unclear if projected revenues will materialize into the future given the ongoing economic slowdown caused by the virus, which could cause budgetary woes for Maine down the road. Everyone involved in Maine politics will be anxious to see the next report from the state’s economic forecasting committee to get a better idea of how the virus is impacting our economy and revenue collections.

Omnibus coronavirus response: This bill significantly expands the powers of Governor Mills during this public health crisis, including the ability to prohibit water and electric utilities from shuttering services due to unpaid bills and control over the June primary elections.

Under the bill, Governor Mills can take “any reasonable administrative actions” to facilitate voting for the June 9, 2020 primary elections, including conducting the election by absentee ballot. The bill also enables the governor to allow for compulsory school attendance requirements to be met through remote learning and suspends elements of the state’s Freedom of Access Act that require elected bodies to meet in person.

The measure also allows the governor to modify or suspend requirements for professional or occupational licensing if strict compliance with the requirements would hinder an effective emergency response.

This is an area where the governor should enhance response efforts by allowing medical professionals licensed in other states to immediately become licensed in Maine and expediting the licensing process for those actively seeking medical licensure in Maine. These actions would cut through unnecessary red tape in this time of emergency and give Maine access to medical professionals who can help defend against COVID-19.

In addition, lawmakers agreed to delay the implementation of a statewide plastic bag ban that was set to take effect in April. The law’s new effective date is January 2021.

-Other business: Outside of coronavirus response measures, lawmakers did approve other legislation during Tuesday’s marathon session. This includes a bill that would establish a process for the titling of tiny homes in Maine. The bill’s passage will help a local small business owner continue operating after rules issued by the Secretary of State in 2019 put her livelihood in jeopardy.

Lawmakers also approved a new $120 million bond package that will be sent to voters later this year. The package includes $105 million for transportation infrastructure improvements and $15 million to expand broadband coverage in Maine. An amendment added to the bill requires the bond issue to be decided by voters during the June primary election.

Currently, no date has been set for the Maine Legislature to reconvene. If they do not reconvene in 2020 to finish their work, hundreds of bills will die by default.

After lawmakers adjourned, Governor Mills issued an executive order Wednesday announcing new emergency measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Maine, including a statewide ban on dine-in service at all bars and restaurants and a prohibition on gatherings of 10 more people. These changes take effect on Wednesday at 6 p.m. She also requested nonessential public-facing businesses to close for 14 days.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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