Commentary

Face-saving partisanship killed emergency powers reform in Maine this session

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In an interview on the WGAN Morning News on Monday, host Matt Gagnon pressed House Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) on Maine’s failure to move on emergency power reform this session after New Hampshire did so in their most recently approved budget.

Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office in the Granite State and had little trouble in successfully reining in the power of their chief executive during states of emergency. 

When asked why Maine can’t do the same thing under Democratic leadership, Speaker Fecteau railed against obscure provisions in New Hampshire’s bill that give unelected and nonpartisan staff the power to deem when the Legislature “incapacitated,” and thus must adjourn, as an unsavory aspect of the Granite State’s reforms.

The only issue with that, though, is Gov. Janet Mills had essentially that same power during Maine’s state of emergency issued due to COVID-19. Following her declaration of the state of emergency in March 2020, lawmakers adjourned to allow the executive branch to manage the pandemic. While a declaration of emergency itself does not incapacitate the legislature, it is a notice from the chief executive that she considers the legislature incapable of properly responding to the imminent threat; one that requires extensive executive authority to properly control. 

Over the next year and change following Mills’ emergency declaration, legislative leaders repeatedly denied requests by the minority to reconvene, subsequently revealing how a unified government in Augusta could, in theory, institute a never-ending state of emergency controlled by one person.

Under Maine law, without a joint resolution from the legislature, the governor may choose to continue an emergency declaration in perpetuity. Nothing in state law requires the governor to relinquish this authority or the legislature to approve the emergency declaration. That’s a problem, and antithetical to the idea of representative government. 

Saying in the interview that “no emergency is going to be perfect,” Fecteau outlined his hesitancy to limit the powers of the governor during an emergency.

“I want to make sure we’re not handcuffing the chief executive to make important decisions with whatever we face. That’s what’s most important to me, and so I’m not at this point convinced that changing emergency powers is the right move,” Fecteau said. 

Handcuffing the governor? Really?

Mills imposed some of the most restrictive, asinine and unscientific mandates seen throughout the country in 2020. Remember when outdoor state parks were closed, or when you were only allowed to golf in your home county (unless you had a membership at a golf club in a different county)? Instead of trusting Mainers to take care of themselves and their communities, she issued scattered edicts to control Mainers’ actions. She acted as if COVID-19 equally impacted everyone, regardless of age or preexisting conditions.

These comments from the leader of Maine’s House of Representatives come about a month after a slate of bills aimed at reforming the governor’s unilateral authority during emergencies all failed on party lines. A bill that would have simply established a commission to review the state’s pandemic response, to use the next time a pandemic inevitably strikes, failed as well. It was obstruction for the sole sake of face-saving partisanship.

On the other hand, New Hampshire during that time limited states of emergency to 90 days at a time, amid other improvements, in their new budget.

To say that we shouldn’t reform emergency powers based on one bad experience, as Fecteau implies in the interview, is short-sighted at best and flat-out nonsense at worst. This “one-time event” lasted more than one year, significantly damaged the state’s economy, allowed the government to usurp the individual liberties of Mainers in unprecedented fashion and enabled one elected official to dominate our lives for more than 15 months.

It’s a shame our lawmakers couldn’t discard partisanship and condemn the type of consolidated power our government was established to protect against.

If this abuse of emergency power can’t motivate us to cross party lines and fix our state of emergency laws, what can?

About Nick Linder

Nicholas Linder, of Cincinnati, is a communications Intern for Maine Policy Institute. He is going into his second year of studying finance and public policy analysis at The Ohio State University. On campus, he is involved with Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations and Business for Good.

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