Lawmakers pass resolution to start Second Session work remotely, will revisit decision next month

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The second session of the 130th Maine Legislature began on January 5, with both the Senate and House of Representatives meeting in-person at the State House in Augusta.

The legislature passed two joint resolutions, one adopting a procedure allowing legislative committees to conduct business remotely and another acknowledging the January 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol and honoring the law enforcement officers who protect legislators there and at the Maine State House.

Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) asked for a roll call vote on the January 6 resolution in the House of Representatives. Andrews said he felt passing a collective resolution, rather than asking individual members their feelings about January 6, was not appropriate. 

“While I can appreciate the sentiment of this resolution, I’m not exactly comfortable with some of the language in it,” Andrews said. 

Rep. Beth O’Connor (R-Berwick) also objected to the resolution’s reference to the actions of January 6 as “domestic terrorism.” She said none of the January 6 defendants have been tried and proved under domestic terrorism charges. 

They were joined by Rep. Joel Stetkis (R-Canaan), who also objected to the resolution. The resolution passed in the House by a vote of 77 to 49.

The joint resolution allowing the legislature to operate remotely contains identical provisions to the joint resolution passed during the 130th Legislature’s first session.

Under the resolution, electronic meetings are considered to have taken place at the seat of government and members who attend meetings electronically are considered present. The resolution also requires notice to be given when electronic meetings are taking place and requires each member of the legislature to be identifiable and have the ability to speak and hear others. Members of the public must also be able to participate.

The resolution further allows votes to be cast electronically and stipulates that technology failures on the part of individuals or groups of members that interrupt a person’s connection to a meeting don’t invalidate actions taken by the majority during a meeting.

The Senate passed the resolution by a vote of 17 to 12. Sen. Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin) requested a roll call vote and spoke in opposition to the resolution.

Timberlake argued that many Maine residents are expected to show up in person to work everyday despite COVID-19 cases, and the legislature should do the same. 

“Since we’ve been apart, we’ve grown apart. We see it through a lens of partisanship and divisiveness that I haven’t seen before, never in my life, since I’ve been here for 12 years. And it’s just not working for Maine’s people. It’s not good governance,” Timberlake said.

Other Senate Republicans echoed Timberlake’s objections. Sen. Scott Cyrway (R-Kennebec) argued that electronic meetings provide barriers for participation in public proceedings for older Mainers. 

Sen. Stacey Guerin (R-Penobscot) said there is a lack of cross-partisan camaraderie and collaboration because of online meetings and supported the immediate implementation of hybrid meetings.

Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Oxford) claimed legislative committees reported a greater number of divided reports last session and cited remote meetings as contributing to this. She also said she had less interaction with the general public during the previous session than in the past. Keim noted that legislators who struggled with technological issues were able to receive support from staff.

“No one is doing that for every citizen of Maine who wants to come and speak to their own government. We absolutely should have a hybrid model, but we should be in-person,” Keim said.

Sen. David Miramant (D-Knox) joined Senate Republicans in raising objections to the resolution. Miramant said it seems “we’re starting a new class warfare with division” around COVID-19. Miramant stated employees able to work remotely tend to have white collar jobs, while a lot of minimum wage jobs that require working with the public cannot work from home.

“Every committee room needs to be rigged for public input. Two rooms in the building after two years of COVID are set up to have hybrid meetings,” Miramant said. 

Miramant also offered to allow the legislature to use the money he’s not being reimbursed for legislative travel expenses to be put towards setting up hybrid meeting spaces in committee rooms in the State House.

Several Senate Democrats, including Sen. Ned Claxon (D-Androscoggin) spoke in favor of the resolution. Sen. Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland) objected to the idea that remote meetings meant Maine residents didn’t have access to legislators. 

Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) also objected to several arguments made against the resolution. Jackson stated that a hybrid system is in place in every room in the legislature but leadership hasn’t “gone through with it yet because I don’t think it’s prudent yet.”

Jackson said the legislature will wait a month and reassess the situation before considering implementing hybrid meetings.

In the House, Speaker Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), responding to a question about the possibility of hybrid meetings from Rep. Jennifer Poirier (R-Skowhegan), stated the legislature has purchased the equipment necessary to set up all committee rooms in the State House to allow hybrid meetings. According to Fecteau, the room used by the Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs is currently equipped for hybrid meetings. Fecteau also said he and Jackson have agreed to evaluate whether to allow hybrid meetings on a month-by-month basis.

The resolution to allow remote meetings passed the House by a vote of 73 to 53. Andrews requested a roll call vote on the resolution and also spoke against it.

Andrews said he was asking for a roll call vote because legislators’ constituents “deserve to know if their representative banned them from the State House for another year.” 

Andrews noted most of Maine is “largely back to normal” and Maine no longer has a state of emergency declaration in place.

“Now is not the time to cower in fear in our ivory tower while the rest of Maine gets back to work. We need to match the resiliency and hard work of the rest of the state,” Andrews said. 

“If Maine families can spend two hours and twenty-eight minutes in a movie theater watching the latest Spiderman movie, we as a legislature can have in-person committee hearings,” he added.

Andrews also called public testimony and ability to attend public hearings a “necessary” check on government power. 

Besides Andrews, roughly a dozen Republican members rose to speak in opposition to the resolution to conduct committee work remotely. Many arguments echoed those made in the Senate and referenced public accessibility concerns and legislators’ discomfort with meeting remotely while members of the public are expected to work despite COVID-19 fears.

Rep. Patrick Corey (R-Windham) also referenced a change in atmosphere in the legislature since the institution of the remote meeting policy.

“This building used to be collaborative, energizing and welcoming. This legislature used to be collaborative, energizing and welcoming. We did our best work then. It used to be fun,” Corey added during the floor debate. 

Rep. Dick Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro) also expressed frustration with language in the joint resolution that allows legislators to vote to suspend the remote meeting policy. Bradstreet questioned how legislators can do so if they’re not meeting in-person.

Several House Democrats spoke in favor of the resolution.

Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland) argued that remote meetings allow for greater public participation because they do not require people to travel across the state. Kessler also said he felt “insulted” by accusations legislators were sitting in an ivory tower when they are required to work both their regular jobs and do “the people’s work.”

Other legislative business included the passage of two pieces of emergency legislation. LD 895 reapportioned Franklin County into three county commissioner districts until election day in November 2024. After 2024, it will be reapportioned to contain five county commissioner districts.

LD 391 re-establishes the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative retroactive to October 1, 2021.

Both LD 895 and LD 391 were passed as emergency measures and received support from the required two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature. They will be implemented immediately if signed by Gov. Janet Mills.

A communication from Senate President Jackson appointing Jacob Norton to serve as the state auditor for the remainder of the elected term was also placed on file in the Senate. The position of auditor was vacated by Matt Dunlap in October 2021 after he failed to obtain internal auditor credentials in a time period stipulated by state law.

According to Jackson’s communication, Norton has served in the state auditor’s office for 13 years, most recently as a principal auditor.

“[Norton’s] commitment to public service and experience within the agency will ensure a smooth transition and serve the state well,” Jackson wrote. 

Maine statute requires the appointment be confirmed by a vote of the Senate.

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