The Maine House of Representatives convenes Dec. 2, 2020, at the Augusta Civic Center, with the basketball court adapted to accommodate physical distancing by the lawmakers. (Portland Phoenix/Douglas Rooks)
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The Maine Legislature is open for business this week, but not in a way that would have been recognizable in any previous session.

The Statehouse is still closed to the public. When the House and Senate meet in formal session – likely not before March – they will gather at the Augusta Civic Center, in much the same way they did on “opening day,” Dec. 2, with the House in the cavernous basketball arena and the Senate in the North Wing – a large meeting space that, pre-pandemic, hosted banquets and annual meetings.

Until then, every joint committee – each with three senators and 10 representatives, plus staff – will work almost entirely online, although the House and Senate chairs will quarterback the proceedings from committee rooms at the Statehouse. While legislators are welcome to come to Augusta, leaders are hoping they will mostly stay home, reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission that’s again become a major concern throughout the state.

One apparent problem was cleared up rapidly in pre-session planning: How to get bills to committees in the first place – called “referencing,” a task that often absorbs much of the first weeks of the session.

“It’s always been in the rules that the House clerk and Senate secretary can do this,” said newly elected Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “Now, they will.”

The process isn’t entirely foolproof, however. Sometimes, bills end up in the wrong committee, while in other cases, it may not be clear which panel would be best, given the overlapping jurisdictions of the 18 standing committees.

In those cases, the two Democratic chairs will decide, with a role for the ranking Republicans on each committee.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, returning for a second term in that role, sees some advantages to full online proceedings.

“For years, I’ve been hearing about how hard it is for my constituents to get to Augusta to testify on bills,” Jackson said. “This time, we’re forced to do it differently, and anyone with a computer, anywhere in Maine, can participate.”

If it works well, and he expects it will, Jackson said he will advocate allowing remote testimony at all bill hearings, even after things get back to normal.

Under the new rules, committees will report out bills by electronic voting, and only then will it be necessary to hold in-person sessions. No proxy or remote voting will be allowed once bills reach the floor for debate. With any luck, Fecteau said, public-health restrictions will have eased enough for the House and Senate to return to their chambers by late spring.

As for the content of the session, that’s even harder to scope out.

Will some of the major issues left on the floor last March, when the 2020 session suddenly ended, return full-fledged? Those include, on the progressive side, revisiting the Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, reforming the criminal justice system, combating systemic racism, and possibly closing the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

Fecteau said it’s possible.

Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, delivers the invocation to begin the Dec. 2, 2020, organizing session of the Maine Senate in the Augusta Civic Center’s North Wing. (Portland Phoenix/Douglas Rooks)

“Some of these issues have been studied for years, and have really been coming to the fore,” he said. “I can see some decisive votes, even on bills we haven’t been able to agree on before.”

Attending to the many consequences of the pandemic will be front and center, Fecteau said, mentioning food insecurity, housing security, and fully reopening public schools as major priorities.

“The public expects this,” he said, “and we have to deliver.”

The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations was charged last summer with identifying bills helpful in overcoming racism, but had no immediate results, since lawmakers didn’t reconvene. But Fecteau said it has already changed his and other legislators’ thinking.

“I sponsored a bill to study the need for affordable housing,” he said, calling it a personal concern, since he grew up in public housing in Biddeford and Saco. “And yet I didn’t have any person of color as a member” – something he said he plans to redress in a new version.

Behind everything looms the prospect of difficult budget negotiations, as several major revenue sources are down sharply amid the pandemic. Earlier, Jackson was more optimistic about Congress providing specific funding for hard-hit state and municipal budgets, which he said is needed to ward off sharp budget cuts just as state economies are trying to recover while offering more emergency services at the same time.

“It wasn’t included in the year-end bill (finally signed by President Trump) and I don’t think it gets much easier with Joe Biden as president,” Jackson said, even though Biden says it’s a top priority. Jackson noted that many Republican governors have been outspoken on the subject, but so far Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to consider state aid.

It could even turn on the results of two U.S. Senate runoffs being decided this week in Georgia, since, if Democrats win both, Republicans would lose their majority.

Even if no federal help is forthcoming, Jackson foresees a difficult, but not impossible situation: “We left town last March with a record rainy day fund,” he said, “and an unallocated surplus.”

The economy has done better than initial estimates from the Revenue Forecasting Committee, and the projected deficits are smaller. Jackson has seen tough budgets before, beginning with his first, as a freshman House member in 2003.

Still, he said, “All that we’ve done is not going to cover the gap. Without help, it’s not going to be pretty, but we’ll do what we have to do.”

Although taxes are not the first topic on any legislator’s mind, Jackson doesn’t shy away.

“A lot of people have done very well during the pandemic,” he said. “We may have to look at our tax code. I do know I’m not going to vote for a budget that forces property tax increases.”

And that in turn brings up the delicate subject of partisan relationships, which have been strained both in Congress and in legislatures around the country. Democrats currently have a 21-13 Senate majority, with a special election in March to replace Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who was elected secretary of state.

The House margin is slimmer, although with several Democratic-leaning independents it’s a working majority. Fecteau said he thinks better relations with Republicans are possible, if not certain.

Unlike the two previous speakers, he co-chaired a committee, then called Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development, and worked in the 2017-2018 sessions with former Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, to achieve bipartisan votes. Another member of that committee, Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, is now assistant House minority leader.

Relationships matter, Fecteau said. For the 130th Maine Legislature, at least they’re a start.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues since 1985 as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.

Maine Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford.

Fecteau: The youngest speaker

At age 28, Ryan Fecteau is the youngest House speaker in any of the country’s 50 state legislatures, although he is not the youngest in Maine history, and some of his recent predecessors weren’t much older.

The “youth movement” is attributable to legislative term limits – eight years and out or up – that voters approved in 1993 and took effect in 1996. It affects the House more than the Senate since many senators have prior House experience.

In the past two decades, Mark Eves was 35, Mike Saxl was 33, and Hannah Pingree just 32 when elected speaker. All were Democrats and moved up rapidly through majority leadership positions.

To find a younger Maine speaker than Fecteau you have to go all the way back to 1842, when Charles Andrews of Turner was elected at age 27. The better-known Hannibal Hamlin of Hampden – later Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president – was also 27 when first chosen in 1837.

Yet no survey of young speakers would be complete without mentioning John Martin, who was 33 when elected in 1974 and served a record 19 years before resigning. Martin, who was already an experienced House member, had served five terms, including two as minority leader, before taking the helm.

Martin, now 79, has since become the longest-serving Maine legislator ever, elected to 23 House terms and four in the Senate. The only terms he hasn’t served since 1964 were from 1996-1998, when he tried but failed as a write-in candidate, and from 2012-2014, following his only electoral defeat.

Has the veteran offered the new speaker much advice?

“There wasn’t any on the first day,” Fecteau said. “There was too much else going on,” as he presided over the first-ever session outside the Statehouse in at least a century.

Yet he and Martin know each other well; Fecteau sat behind Martin on the floor, and was, like many of his colleagues, awed by Martin’s knowledge of the legislative rules – many of which he originally wrote.

“I’ve been able to serve with the longest-serving legislator, even in the era of term limits,” Fecteau said.

Fecteau has also been able to observe Martin at work in the Appropriations Committee, where, while not the House chair, he’s a fixture as the senior Democrat.

“He’s a wealth of institutional knowledge, and I’ll tell you one thing,” Fecteau said. “I’m very thankful he’s on our side of the aisle, and not the other.”

— Douglas Rooks

Maine Gov. Janet Mills

For Mills, pandemic colors everything

As is her wont, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills did not agree to an interview about the upcoming legislative session. But press secretary Lindsay Crete offered observations on Mills’ behalf.

“Gov. Mills’ primary focus will continue to be fighting the pandemic, protecting the lives and livelihoods of Maine people, and charting a course for economic recovery,” Crete said in a statement.

Specifically, “This will include expanding the availability of testing across Maine; ensuring a quick, efficient and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as they become available; allocating additional federal aid as it becomes available; and working with the business community to help them recover in the months to come.”

Recognizing the need for two-thirds majority votes, Crete said Mills will seek “a bipartisan and balanced budget” to meet pandemic shortfalls and the need for emergency services.

Crete said Mills is renewing her call for Congress “to pass direct relief for state and local governments.” All other New England governors have made similar pleas, including three Republicans.

In addition to short-term aid, Crete said, “The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the importance of diversifying and expanding Maine’s economy and investing in vital infrastructure, including high-speed internet.”

A 10-year plan from the Economic Recovery Committee Mills appointed earlier “includes education, child care, broadband, and creating new, good-paying clean energy and efficiency jobs” – all priorities the governor supports, Crete said.

— Douglas Rooks