Statehouse Report: Maine Legislature likely to reconvene in August

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Slowly and painfully, the Legislature is moving toward reconvening, with a special session likely beginning sometime in mid-August.

Leaders on Tuesday began polling members on that possibility. But even the idea of bringing 186 lawmakers and staff back to Augusta causes unease, and any talk of a session is hedged with “ifs” and plenty of caveats.

This being an election year, however, there have already been plenty of partisan fireworks.

Republicans, who were pushing hard to reconvene two months ago, now say they’re in no hurry. On May 2, the four GOP leaders demanded that Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon use their authority to reconvene, with the primary goal of curbing Gov. Janet Mills’s emergency powers.

At the time, Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow called it “a shot across the bow” to get Mills’ attention, who had been criticized by both parties for a lack of consultation. Safety precautions weren’t on their minds but was a factor Jackson cited, worrying that a hasty return could cause “superspreader” COVID-19 events when lawmakers went back home. 

Jackson now expresses frustration over Republicans’ reversal. He particularly objected to their insistence lawmakers consider only a few bills – including budget cuts – then leave again.

“We didn’t get sent here to do half the job,” Jackson said. “We can’t abandon our work just because we had to leave suddenly.”

Dow didn’t respond to inquiries about reconvening, nor did other Republican officers. House Leader Kathleen Dillingham released a radio address in which she complained that, while Oxford Plains Speedway – in her district – can reopen, fans aren’t allowed to attend under the emergency orders limiting public gatherings. She offered no proposals, and concluded, “You can’t govern in fear.”

When the issue of requiring masks throughout the Statehouse first came up, Jackson noted, Dow was the only GOP leader in favor, while Dillingham opposed it. The Legislative Council, comprised of the 10 leaders, has since agreed to their use.

There are two ways the Legislature can reconvene: with a majority of each of the four caucuses, or by the governor calling lawmakers into session.

If Republicans continue to resist, Mills would have to issue an order. Her spokesman, Scott Ogden, didn’t respond about whether she’d be willing. Mary Erin Casale, Gideon’s communications director, said a request to Mills was among “the options on the table.”

Last week, joint legislative committees began meeting for the first time since the March 17 adjournment to work on bills, rather than just receive administration briefings. They’re using the House chamber and the large Appropriations Committee room to achieve necessary distancing.

Committee work will continue and likely intensify. There are some 200 bills not yet acted on, Casale said, but, while Appropriations will be busy, several committees have no pending legislation and will not meet.

When lawmakers do come back, they will almost certainly gather at the Augusta Civic Center; nonpartisan staff have already made walk-throughs, and are figuring out how it would work. The 151-member House could occupy the main arena, which usually hosts basketball games, concerts, and trade shows but is now closed. The 35-member Senate might meet in the smaller North Wing.

New Hampshire divided its Legislature when it reconvened, with the House at the University of New Hampshire’s hockey rink in Durham, while the Senate used the House chamber in Concord. That wouldn’t work here, Jackson said, because joint committee reports have the two chambers passing bills back and forth constantly.

The Civic Center would also allow the first physical public access since the pandemic began, Jackson spokeswoman Christine Kirby said: “The bleachers offer enough space, and we want to ensure that reporters can do their jobs.”

No session will take place until all safety protocols are in place, Jackson said, and there are no upward spikes in coronavirus cases.

Sure to be atop the agenda is more than $800 million remaining from the original $1.25 billion Maine was allocated under the CARES Act passed by Congress in March. Jackson would like at least $300 million to go to public schools, while Casale said day-care centers are in dire need. Yet she acknowledged that, with September looming, there have been no appropriations.

Congress is also expected to pass a new relief bill when it returns this month, which would make more money available for an August special session. With an amount likely somewhere between the $3 trillion the House passed in May and the $1 trillion Republican Senate leaders have offered, Maine could get a larger funding boost than from the CARES Act.

With financial needs increasing daily, it won’t be easy for Maine’s leaders to wait much longer, despite risks almost everyone involved acknowledges.

“We don’t want to have members back here for any longer than we absolutely have to,” Casale said.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times.