Commentary

Governor Mills thinks her emergency power should be even more expansive

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On Wednesday afternoon, Maine’s Health and Human Services Committee will hold a public hearing on LD 1344, a department bill sponsored by Rep. Michele Meyer of Eliot that would expand the powers of the Department of Health and Human Services during a state of emergency, giving the executive branch even more authority to assess punishments and unilaterally control our daily lives.

LD 1344 would give DHHS the devastating authority to fine, suspend licenses, and ultimately close down businesses if they “directly and repeatedly violate public health control measures” during a declared emergency. 

These punitive actions would be exempt from the hearing process under the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as exempt from the normal 30 day maximum license suspension currently outlined in statute, as section 7 of the bill dictates.

Licensees would be able to request that the District Court hear their appeal, but the bill specifies that each “suspension remains in effect pending the District Court’s review.” Essentially, a business owner who challenges the department’s rules would be guilty until proven innocent. The state could twist arms, shutting down a family’s source of income while pleading their case in court.

In short, Governor Mills wants to impose unscientific rules that hurt businesses’ bottom line, and when they refuse to enforce those rules, the governor wants her health department to have the statutory authority to destroy that business forever.

Until last year, most Mainers had never contemplated a 13-month long emergency. Public health policy, like scientific understanding, can shift significantly over time. It should be held to the same standard of accountability that we demand of public servants, even in an extended emergency situation.

Just in the last year, we have seen the goals of public health evolve, like the virus it has targeted. Over these long months, we have been told by Governor Mills, Dr. Nirav Shah, Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, and other administration officials that the broad restrictions on business capacity, gatherings, schools, travel, etc. must continue, until… 

  • “We flatten the curve”
  • “We can keep case counts low”
  • “A vaccine is widely available”
  • Vaccination is widespread”
  • “The variants are under control in the state… in the region… in the nation… across the globe”

The Mills administration has repurposed the honest daily pursuit of more accurate science for its own gain, retaining what gives it more control over Maine people and jettisoning the rest.

This inconsistent messaging has done more to degrade trust in public health experts than any question asked of them by the public. Unfortunately, the pursuit of truth and accountability have also been casualties of this pandemic as well. Administration leaders have been caught skirting public transparency laws during this pandemic. Those who demand reasonable ways to measure the effects of this unprecedented executive action are smeared as “spreading dangerous disinformation.”

In 2007, Dr. Donald A. Henderson, former director of the World Health Organization effort which eradicated smallpox in the 1970s, co-authored a paper in response to a recent CDC plan to institute this type of experimental pandemic policy, initially called “Early, Targeted, Layered Use of Nonpharmaceutical Interventions.”

In that prescient document, Henderson et. al vigorously cite decades of disease mitigation precedent which condemn the coercion-based public health philosophy that leads to closed schools, mandatory mass quarantine, and a general shutdown of society. They close with this:

“Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.”

Maine’s emergency power statute already allows the governor broad discretion to determine what constitutes a disaster or emergency. Both the governor and DHHS have the authority to declare a health emergency and enforce their rules. Emergency executive branch orders receive little public input, and cannot be specifically amended or rescinded by the legislature.

The question becomes: if Maine DHHS had this power through Gov. Mills’ executive orders under the current Civil State of Emergency, why does it need to be clarified in statute? What more would this bill add? 

This bill is unnecessary at best, and at worst, a bureaucratic power grab. That only seems fitting for the Mills administration after 13 months (and counting) of single person rule in Augusta.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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