Senate President Troy Jackson and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon began polling Maine lawmakers on Tuesday to gauge their interest in reconvening next month. Legislative Republicans denied their undefined offer to reconvene, stating they do not support an open-ended session that fails to focus on amending Governor Janet Mills’ emergency powers and addressing coronavirus-related legislation.
The Maine Legislature has been out of session since March 17. Before abruptly adjourning, lawmakers granted Governor Mills additional emergency powers to manage the state’s response to COVID-19. Since then, legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration over being sidelined in the decision-making process.
In order to call a special session, a majority of lawmakers from both parties must agree to reconvene. Though Republican lawmakers have wanted to reconvene and strip Mills of her powers since early May, they are hesitant to return to Augusta under Jackson and Gideon’s vague agenda, which leaves the door open for lawmakers to debate bills unrelated to the virus.
In a joint press release on Wednesday, legislative Republicans said they polled the members of their caucuses and recorded more than 60 legislators who are against returning without an agreement to amend the powers of the executive during a period of emergency and other scope of work.
In a July 8 letter responding to the presiding officers’ guidance memo on a special session, Republican leaders in the House and Senate demanded that lawmakers agree on the scope of work and time frame before reconvening. They seek a limited session in which lawmakers focus only on COVID-19 related issues, such as the failures of Maine’s unemployment system and the allocation of funds from the CARES act.
“We will not return to an open-ended session to conduct legislative business as normal when the rest of the state is told it isn’t safe for them to do the same. Mainers need relief and commonsense leadership at this time, not a bunch of politicians returning to Augusta to pad their re-election resumes,” Republican lawmakers wrote.
Jackson sent a letter in response to the Republican lawmakers asking them to “put aside partisan games” so they can wrap up unfinished legislative work. Jackson did not explicitly address what types of bills will be on the table, simply saying “most, if not all, bills before us will not receive funding.”
Gideon has likewise tried to alleviate concerns that Democrats will prioritize existing bills over COVID-related issues.
“Bolstering our economic recovery and ensuring that we are addressing the needs of Mainers are the top priorities for this potential Legislative session. This will include public school readiness, help with housing and nutrition needs, aid to small businesses and the tourism economy, adequate childcare, access to rural healthcare, utilizing federal funding and more,” Gideon said in a statement.
Yet, if Gideon and Jackson are truly interested in addressing the virus, it’s unclear why they have not been regularly convening the Legislative Council to consider new emergency legislation. The only way for new, COVID-specific legislation to be introduced is through the Legislative Council, which screens and approves bills in the Second Session. The council consists only of 10 lawmakers, who could have easily met in April or May. The only other way new legislation can be introduced is by the governor.
Moreover, if addressing COVID is the presiding officers’ top priority, they should have no trouble reaching an agreement with their counterparts on the scope of work for a special session.
There is too much at stake to reconvene without a more explicit understanding of what the legislature will discuss. There are currently 200 bills left in legislative committees, with an estimated 943 million in new spending on the Special Appropriations table.
Some of the existing bills feel irrelevant given all that has changed with COVID-19. Lawmakers should neither be discussing nor allocating money toward the purchase of electric school buses or a state takeover of Central Maine Power and Versant Power (formerly Emera Maine).
Rather, they should focus on bills that will help revitalize the state economy and ensure the financial well-being of struggling Mainers.