Statehouse Report: The Maine Legislature’s theatrics of the absurd 

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The Kabuki theater that’s come to characterize Maine’s legislative debates produced another noisy failure last week, apparently ending any chance of lawmakers calling themselves back into special session this year.

A second poll of members on reconvening, following a month of committee sessions and votes on bills, drew the same nonresponse from GOP lawmakers – the minority in both House and Senate – with only a handful of lawmakers casting votes.

Still, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills can call lawmakers back at any time.

Republicans, who three months earlier were eager to reconvene to repeal Mills’s emergency powers, now want to limit the agenda to bills of their choosing, a possibility Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, denounced in a statement: “For them to say they want to privately pick and choose winners and losers before agreeing to a special session is deeply concerning and disrespectful.”

He noted that Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, had participated and voted on bills; 162 are now ready for floor votes.

The failure seems puzzling. Most state legislatures have returned to session with coronavirus precautions, including those of all five other New England states. Massachusetts lawmakers never adjourned, and have now extended their session beyond the scheduled July 31 adjournment.

Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont have all had special sessions. New Hampshire finished its suspended session in late June, capped by two days when the House met in the University of New Hampshire’s hockey rink while the Senate took over the House chamber.

In most of the special sessions, the focus was not on tax cuts like those the Maine Republicans favor, but on racial justice issues, including limits on police arrest tactics and court procedures.

One contributing factor to the partisan split here is Maine’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race, where 24-year Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins faces Democratic nominee Sara Gideon, the House speaker.

Yet in New Hampshire, the Senate majority leader, Dan Feltes, is one of two Democrats competing in the Sept. 8 primary to challenge Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in November. Its Legislature finished all business, although it drew a record-setting blizzard of vetoes from Sununu.

The only remaining chance for Maine lawmakers to return is a call from Mills, who remains inscrutable. She’s said nothing directly, although her press secretary, Lindsay Crete, emailed that the governor has made no decision “but continues to engage with legislative leaders in a collaborative manner on the timing and focus of any special session.”

In fact, Maine governors usually lead discussions on special sessions. Veteran Statehouse observers can’t recall an instance where lawmakers, rather than the governor, initiated a session – although this year’s reopening debate has been unusually protracted and public.

Within the Democratic caucus, interviews reveal divisions of opinion on whether a session will, or even should be held unless Congress somehow enacts another stimulus bill with aid for states and cities. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, called that  “a game-changer” that would spur reconvening. 

State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is skeptical a special session of the Legislature would be worth the expense.

Diamond noted that plans call for both the House and Senate to meet at the Augusta Civic Center. “It would cost $7,500 for the first day and $4,500 for each additional day,” he said. “Would it be worth it?”

Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the assistant majority leader, said Republicans’ concerns about an extended session are misplaced.

“We’ve never had any intention of holding an open-ended session without an agreement on timing,” Vitelli said. With committee action now complete, “It shouldn’t take any more than one or two days” to wrap things up, she added.

Republican senators did not return calls.

Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, said he worries about what a session called by the governor could accomplish. “Would the same partisan divisions that came up during the polling continue?” he said.

Carpenter, too, is perplexed by Republican resistance, calling it “a weird thing,” and said the GOP is sending “a mixed message.” He noted that the Judiciary Committee, which he co-chairs, considered numerous bills, with all Republicans participating remotely (except one who lost a reelection bid in the July 14 primary). Lisa Keim, the lone Republican senator on the panel, even showed up in Augusta.

There are partisan currents in Carpenter’s district, too. His bid for a third term is being tested by Republican Trey Stewart, now assistant House minority leader, who hails from the sprawling 2nd District’s northern end, Presque Isle.

Without a call from Mills, Diamond said, lawmakers will just have to take up business left behind in March during next year’s session, which begins in December with the election of new legislative leaders. He noted that absent federal action, Mills has asked all agency heads to identify cuts of 10 percent to their budgets, with the state facing a projected deficit of $500 million for the current fiscal year.

Vitelli doesn’t find delay an inviting prospect.

“This (coronavirus) is going to go on for a long time,” she said. “If we don’t figure this out now, it’s going to be even harder to do when we come back in January. We need to meet sooner, rather than later.”

Besides, she said, “We don’t even know whether what seemed important this year will still look that way. The whole world is changing around us, and we’re just beginning to understand what our new priorities might be.”

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