Lawmakers spar over State House pandemic protocols during Wednesday’s session

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The Maine Legislature convened on February 23 to debate several pieces of legislation, including a bill that would ban the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines for five years and another that would add an equal rights amendment to the Maine Constitution if approved by voters at the ballot box.

The legislature’s masking policy was also the source of a tense exchange in the House of Representatives. Before the chamber took its official picture, Rep. Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford) requested a roll call on a motion to temporarily suspend the chamber’s rule requiring members to wear masks for the purpose of taking the photo. The measure passed by a vote of 121 to 14, well above the required two-thirds majority. 

Dillingham requested a roll call vote and also asked Fecteau to consider “moving in the direction of us not returning to wearing our masks once we’re done with this picture and follow what so many other states are doing, along with even schools within the state of Maine, to allow masking to be a choice versus a mandate.”

Following the picture, Dillingham asked Fecteau for clarification on whether the motion on which they had voted was a temporary suspension of the rules, requiring members to put their masks back on.

Fecteau replied in the affirmative and Dillingham asked for further clarification.

“Is it your intention to not move on with our work in our chamber, or get to the point where individuals are asked to leave the chamber if they do not adhere to rules?” Dillingham asked. 

“We will not begin our work until all members are once again complying with the rules of the House. And I will sit here in this chamber for as long as it takes. So if we want to sit here until 10 p.m. this evening, so be it, but we will follow the rules,” Fecteau replied.

“And if we get to the point where either you’re going to have people removed from the chamber and there’s work that comes from the Senate on the supplement, those members will not be able to be present in the chamber to be able to vote on the supplements, is that correct?” Dillingham asked again.

Fecteau affirmed that this was the case and Dillingham requested a roll call vote on suspending the rules to allow members to participate in the chamber without a mask.

Before the vote was held, Fecteau reminded members they had to put a mask on if they wished to vote on Dillingham’s motion. Laughter then broke out in the chamber, prompting a response from Rep. William Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor).

“We’ve been doing this for two years. This is the only building in the state that is state-mandated to wear masks. I don’t know for a fact, but I’d say just about everybody in here has either been vaccinated or had COVID. The last outburst that we had from the other side of the aisle, laughing, laughing because they thought that you were scolding this side of the aisle, should have been called out. It’s not a laughing matter. We’re sick of being treated like little children, wearing these masks on our faces, when we’re two years into this and nobody else is. If you want to wear one, wear one. Let us take them off,” Faulkingham said. 

Faulkingham’s response prompted applause from Republicans. Dillingham’s motion, which needed support from two-thirds of members to prevail, failed by a vote of 77 to 58. 

Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) twice asked Fecteau about the legislature’s remote meeting policy. Both chambers of the legislature adopted a resolution allowing legislative committees to hold remote committee meetings when the second session convened on January 5.

During the reading of a calendar item following the exchange between Dillingham and Fecteau about suspending the chamber’s rules on mask wearing, Andrews asked why the legislature can meet in person but committee meetings must be held remotely. Fecteau did not respond to the question because of the legislative item being considered.

At the end of the day’s session, Andrews repeated his question and asked Fecteau why the chamber can hold in-person sessions but committee meetings can’t be held with members wearing masks.

Fecteau again did not respond to the question. Andrews then raised a point of order and inquired why his question had been ignored. Fecteau replied that the question had been asked to the body generally and not through the chair, and he was not obligated to respond.

During previous sessions, Andrews has asked Fecteau for an update on when hybrid meetings will be implemented. Fecteau has responded by saying he does not have an update.

Fecteau’s office did not return a request for comment about the exchange between himself and Andrews or to a request for an update on hybrid meetings.

Fecteau and Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) released a memo on February 23 announcing to members of two legislative committees that the hybrid meeting format will be tested during a February 24 meeting of the Taxation Committee and a March 2 meeting of the State and Local Government Committee.

“We want to thank you, the members of both committees, in advance for the part you will play in the Legislature’s plan to increase public access to the legislative process,” Fecteau and Jackson wrote in the one-page memo.

The House also debated a motion to accept an ought not to pass report on LD 867 from the Committee on Health and Human Services. The bill would have put a moratorium on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for five years from the date of the first emergency use authorization issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The bill enacted the ban “in order to allow for safety testing and investigations into reproductive harm.”

Debate on the motion fell along partisan lines, with Democrats supporting the motion to accept the committee report, effectively killing the bill, and Republicans opposing the motion. The motion to accept the report passed by a vote of 76 to 59.

The Senate debated LD 344, a resolution that would create a referendum question asking voters to consider adding an amendment prohibiting sex-based discrimination to the Maine Constitution. The House debated and voted to approve the resolution on engrossment during its previous session on February 16. Support for the bill fell largely along partisan lines in the Senate, with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing it. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 22-12. It must still clear the two-thirds threshold in both chambers on enactment to be put out to voters. 

The Senate also finally passed LD 842, a bill that creates a commission to study reestablishing parole in Maine. The bill will now be sent to the governor’s desk.

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