Commentary

Opinion: The legislature should get back to work like the rest of Maine

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Yesterday, the first legislative day of the second session of the 130th Legislature, majority Democrats moved to return to remote work, at least through January and most likely longer than that.

It’s important to note that Maine is no longer under a state of civil emergency declared by the chief executive, Governor Janet Mills. Before yesterday’s action, there was no active statute or resolution in place allowing all public proceedings of the second session to be conducted remotely, despite Democrat leaders saying last month that’s the way it would be this session.

The statute that previously allowed for remote legislative meetings made clear that attendance could be restricted only in the first session while the state was under an emergency declaration.

That emergency expired on June 30, 2021, or 190 days ago. Thus, the resolution passed yesterday by Democrats was necessary to revert to pandemic protocols of the past.

I asked for a roll call vote on the resolution because I believe all Mainers deserve to know if their representatives voted to ban the public from the State House. I liken the presiding officers’ statements about reconsidering this decision in the future to “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Sure, we’ll see about that.

In a state where broadband connectivity remains a major issue, allowing for remote committee hearings only disenfranchises thousands of Mainers who do not have fast or reliable internet connections. That is not fair or equitable, and exactly why the public must also be allowed to attend public meetings in person at the State House.

Our state is largely back to normal. Teachers and students are back in person and learning in rooms the same size of our committee rooms.

Small businesses across the state are rebuilding their consumer bases and steadfast employees have been minding the registers in all sectors across Maine for months now.

During a stint of substitute teaching this fall, I saw firsthand how exceptional school principals and nurses have burned the candle at both ends to do everything they can to keep schools open and in person. They should be applauded for their actions.

Not us, though. Apparently, the 130th Legislature can’t be bothered to hold committee meetings with the public, or to allow testimony from them within the walls of their own State House.

I believe yesterday’s action is an insult to every Mainer who is working hard to get back to normal and provide for their family.  

Why do we as legislators deserve special treatment when most of the rest of the state is operating as they once did? I don’t believe legislators are entitled to special treatment just because we’re legislators. It’s a privilege to serve, and we shouldn’t claim “legislator privilege” when we don’t want to show up in person.

Frédéric Bastiat, one of the most notable classical liberals of the 19th Century, correctly diagnosed the problem with politicians over 150 years ago when he said, “Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”

We legislators are not made of a finer clay. If anything, we should be matching the effort, work ethic and resiliency of those Mainers who have dirt on their jeans, grease on their fingers and swollen ankles after a hard day’s work at the mill or a shift at the diner. If they can do that and show up for work, so can the members of the 130th Maine Legislature.

Yesterday was a squandered opportunity to lead. It was the time to set an example for our constituents, not to cower in fear in our ivory tower until no one ever gets sick again while the rest of the state gets up and goes to work every day.

There are a whole host of controversial bills this session that have the potential to change the face of Maine forever. If such legislation is going to be voted on, then legislators should look the public in the eye and listen to their grievances in person.

If Mainers 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.

Maine doesn’t need more pandemic restrictions, though our state is in desperate need of real leadership. The legislature needs to get back the way things were when we could build consensus and relationships in person.

Unfortunately, the public is not going to be allowed to attend public hearings at their own State House. It’s a lot easier to ram though radical policy when there’s no one there to see you do it.

Photo: Carol Boldt, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About John Andrews

Representative John Andrews represents House District 73, which includes the towns of Paris, Buckfield and Hebron.

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