The sudden adjournment of the Legislature on March 17, and the closing of the Statehouse until at least March 30, were among many unprecedented events caused by the coronavirus public health emergency.
No one knows when lawmakers will be able to resume their “short session,” which had been scheduled to adjourn April 15. But when they do meet for a special session, Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, said he hopes it will be for an extended period.
“We had exactly four weeks to go,” Carpenter said, reached at home last week. “We were just starting our crucial work.”
Carpenter, first elected to the Legislature in 1974, and who served as attorney general from 1990-1994, has seen nothing like this legislative limbo.
“We’re really in uncharted territory,” he said.
As for legislative business, it’s on hold, not finished. A hurriedly enacted $73 million supplemental budget does contain $6 million to fund bills the Legislature is still considering, but there could be a second supplemental budget, since anticipated federal funding may require matches and statutory changes.
Here are updates on bills the Phoenix has been following:
• Juvenile justice: LD 1108, a measure from Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, to close the Long Creek youth detention center in South Portland by 2022 was killed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on March 16. A bill authorizing the Department of Corrections to move incarcerated women to Long Creek from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, LD 1723, has seen no committee action. Another bill that would limit youth detention, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, got a favorable committee vote March 2 but awaits a committee amendment before it can receive floor votes.
• Local options taxes: Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, said she and Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, are discussing which of their two bills, LD 609 and LD 1254, represents the best opportunity to move forward. Terry’s bill would have the state collect an additional 1 percent lodging tax and distribute it to municipalities, while Sylvester’s would allow municipalities to add the 1 percent themselves. Both received 8-5 “ought to pass” votes in the Taxation Committee.
• Mental health crisis funding: LD 803 from Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, calls for $4.4 million to ensure that those in crisis aren’t taken to jails or hospital emergency rooms, but receive appropriate intervention. It hasn’t yet received a vote from the Health and Human Services Committee.
• Health care commission: Senate President Troy Jackson’s bill, LD 2110, to establish a commission within the executive branch to review prices and coverage, similar to those in Vermont and Massachusetts, was amended to be run by the Legislature. Hiring a director and staff would cost $241,000. It was enacted by voice votes and awaits funding.
• Trails in rail corridors: A Department of Transportation bill, LD 2124, to establish advisory councils for proposals on state-owned lines, received a favorable Transportation Committee vote. Separate proposals, LD 1141, to authorize the Merrymeeting Trail from Topsham to Gardiner, and LD 992, to extend the Downeast Sunrise Trail to Calais, were killed.
• Indian Land Claims Act: An ambitious task force report recommending major changes in the relationship between the state and four Indian tribes remains pending before the Judiciary Committee.
• And finally, the transportation task force formed to fill a $220 million gap between Highway Fund revenues and DOT’s annual work plans made no recommendation on a proposed fuel tax increase. Lawmakers did authorize another $105 million transportation bond issue, LD 2134, to be considered by voters in June. Another $10 million is included in the just-enacted supplemental budget.
Legislators are still busy, though in unexpected ways.
Warren, a career social worker, organized a “neighbors helping neighbors” effort in her district and signed up 80 volunteers to make phone calls and run errands for those left housebound.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety,” she said. “We all need to do everything we can to help.”
Terry said her phone has been ringing steadily. Many calls are from self-employed business people looking for help, suddenly without suppliers or places to sell their goods. Terry herself, a restaurant chef for 25 years, now runs a catering business and is experiencing similar angst.
“Without an employer, there’s no paid leave, and no unemployment insurance,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”
Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.