The Portland Phoenix

Statehouse Report: Mills, legislators remain on collision course over pandemic planning

Gov. Janet Mills speaks during a recent Maine CDC briefing on the state's coronavirus response. (Courtesy Maine Public/Nick Woodward)

In many ways, it was a good week for Maine, and for the Mills administration – perhaps the best since the coronavirus pandemic began.

On Thursday, May 7, Gov. Janet Mills announced a dramatic increase in testing capacity for COVID-19, from 2,000 weekly tests to 7,000, thanks to a partnership with IDEXX, the medical and veterinary testing company based in Westbrook. Maine should soon exceed the testing threshold recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for states to safely reopen public activities – a standard many reopening states have yet to meet.

In contrast, neighboring New Hampshire has taken similar reopening steps – despite falling well short of the CDC guidelines and having experienced twice the number of cases, and deaths, as Maine.

As a result of the testing breakthrough, Mills on Friday was able to revise her executive orders to allow retail businesses to reopen in 12 rural counties – all except Cumberland, York, Androscoggin, and Penobscot – starting May 11, with safety protocols.

During the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s daily briefing on Thursday – as close as the state has to a gubernatorial press conference – Mills stressed the “good news” of the testing program, and also repeated that “some people may not think this is a big deal.”

Maine Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro.

The testing announcement was indeed widely applauded; the reopening addresses sharp criticism from some business interests, and Republican legislators, that Mills was proceeding too slowly.

Yet beneath the surface, there were still notes of discord and dissent, especially among Maine’s 186 suddenly unemployed legislators, whose session adjourned abruptly on March 17, and whose return is not yet in sight. Democrats, as well as Republicans, are increasingly restive.

There had been no public hearings of any kind since March until the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee met with Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman May 6 for 4 1/2 hours to discuss the state’s struggle to process an unprecedented number of unemployment claims.

Six weeks of relative harmony started to unravel after Mills, in an April 23 letter to lawmakers, tried to address complaints that they were being shut out of regular communication by opening a separate “portal” on the Department of Economic and Community Development’s website. 

Lawmakers, particularly Republicans, weren’t mollified and called the portal an online suggestion box that didn’t recognize the Legislature’s standing as a co-equal branch. On Saturday, May 2, House and Senate Republicans released a letter asking the Democratic leadership – Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon – to call lawmakers into special session to repeal the emergency powers they’d given Mills.

Jackson called Republican Senate Leader Dana Dow, and was told that Republicans had no plans to guide the pandemic response; they wanted only to meet and repeal. “I’m not going to support calling the Legislature back just to repeal the orders and leave again,” Jackson responded. “We’d have no way to accept federal funds or get PPE supplies. It would be chaos.”

Dow now admits Republicans didn’t really expect to be called back; they were calling attention to what they see as the governor’s excluding them from her counsel.

“It was a bit of a shot across the bow,” he said. “Maybe through the bow.”

While Jackson called the request “a stunt,” he shares some of the concerns behind it.

“We hear from hundreds of constituents a week,” the Senate leader said. “We’re in a unique position, as the people’s representatives, to hear and evaluate what they’re telling us.”

About the earlier executive order, effective May 1, allowing hair salons and golf courses to reopen, Jackson said, “we’d been talking about some of those steps for a month.”

Gideon and Jackson didn’t call for a special session, but did send letters to the governor’s office asking Mills to form a task force that would include at least eight legislators, as well as representatives of “health, business, and public interests” to help plan the phased opening of the economy. Mary-Erin Casale, Gideon’s spokeswoman, said there hasn’t yet been a response.

State Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

Jackson said he was especially concerned about small farmers, who he thinks have been largely shut out of federal relief efforts. “I’m hearing they don’t have enough money to buy seeds and that, if they do plant, they wonder if they’ll be able to market their crops,” he said.

The spokesman for the House Republicans, John Bott said, “Gov. Mills seems to be well advised from the public health side, but she hasn’t included many businesses and their employees.” He added, “we don’t want this to be a partisan issue. I’m sure Democrats are hearing the same thing from their constituents.”

On May 6, Mills announced the formation of a 37-member Economic Recovery Committee, co-chaired by Laurie Lachance, president of Thomas College and a former state economist, and Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson, the Portland tech company. It includes just four legislators.

Mills also made it clear she sees no short-term role for the committee, which will have its first online meeting on May 15, and submit an interim report July 15, with a final version in December. It will focus on long-term recovery, not any steps to address statewide anxiety over whether Maine will have a summer tourist season.

Asked whether the governor planned any other means to involve the Legislature, Communications Director Scott Ogden referred to her answer during the May 7 CDC briefing:

“We have had hundreds of emails and communications from legislators practically every day … and we try to answer the questions as best we can,” the governor said. “Maybe I sound like a broken record, but this is a pandemic. It is a public health crisis, the likes of which we haven’t seen for more than 100 years. We’re making decisions based on thousands of consultations and advice not just (from) legislators but people from all sectors of the economy.”

As for any additional role for legislators, the answer would appear to be “no.” The issue, however, is unlikely to go away.

Jackson points out that legislative committees and task forces meet with administration officials regularly out-of-session, but aside from the Labor Committee session, nothing is scheduled.

The administration held nine private legislative briefings with separate groups of Democrats and Republicans, before being called out by the Portland Press Herald, which reported they violated state right-to-know laws. Mills responded by canceling any further briefings – the wrong response, in view of several Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Former Portland legislator Mark Dion.

Mark Dion of Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff and legislator who was a candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary Mills won in 2018, was asked what advice he’d offer concerning the divide between legislative and executive branches. He said “there’s no question the governor is in a difficult position, where she can’t possibly please everyone.”

Nevertheless, Dion said, “It’s important to know how decisions are being made, not just what the decisions are.” Involving legislators would allow decision-making “to be much more transparent,” and they could communicate with their constituents individually – something they feel unable to do now.

If legislators were to meet regularly with Mills, and her team, what would it look like?

Jackson said the eight-legislator task force, with a few members from various sectors, would work, and would relieve pressure for the Legislature to reconvene. He doesn’t see everyone coming back to the Statehouse for a while.

“When we adjourned, we were in the middle of everything, and I wanted to get back as soon as anyone,” Jackson said. But now, “knowing what might happen if we brought 186 legislators and 200 staff back, and that we could carry the virus all over the state, we can’t do that.”

Small groups might be the solution.

Dow favors reconvening the Legislative Council, which is comprised of the 10 party leaders, and a few members of the Appropriations Committee, for financial expertise.

“I’d drive up (from Waldoboro) once a week,” he said. “We could meet in the House chamber. I’m sure we could figure out how to stay far enough apart.”

It’s not just the reopening plan that’s on lawmakers’ minds. In New Hampshire, with a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican governor, lawmakers held hearings and debated how $1.25 billion from the federal CARES Act should be spent. Maine will get the same amount – the minimum for smaller states – but Mills hasn’t publicly raised the subject.

Jackson said he’s been told privately that it’s not clear how the money can be spent – whether it needs to go to affected businesses and health-care providers, which already have separate revenue sources – or to buttress hard-hit general revenues. Maine Turnpike toll revenue was initially down more than half, and sales tax revenues are lagging.

Without convening the Appropriations Committee, it’s difficult for the public to know what’s going on, Jackson said.

Dion observed that around the country governors have increasingly been using executive powers unilaterally, without consulting with or even informing legislative leaders. He wondered whether such a strategy will be effective.

“You win over more people when you involve them and ask their opinions,” he said, “than when you shut them out.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and former editor of Maine Times. He was also a senior policy adviser to Mark Dion during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. 

This story was updated to correct that Maine’s COVID-19 testing capacity will rise to 7,000 tests weekly, not daily, and to disclose the author’s role in Mark Dion’s gubernatorial campaign.

State Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, is co-chair of the Labor and Housing Committee.

Lawmaker ‘shocked, stunned’ by Labor Dept. situation

Last week’s online meeting of the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee was the first formal legislative proceeding in 45 days, and co-chair Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she learned a lot.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, who played the same role in the Baldacci administration, spent some four hours briefing lawmakers and answering questions. Bellows said she was “shocked” to realize how hollowed-out the department became during the LePage administration.

According to Fortman, staffing was cut in half: from 200 to 100, with just 13 employees handling unemployment claims.

Bellows and then-House Chair Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, filed objections in 2017 when an online-only claims system devised by a private contractor for the LePage administration rolled out. Constituents were baffled, and many couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone – even though Maine then had near-record low unemployment.

Bellows said she understands why the Mills administration didn’t immediately move to restore staffing after taking office last year.

“With 3 percent unemployment, they would have been accused of overstaffing,” she said.

But that was, of course, before coronavirus closings produced a tidal wave of claims – more than 20,000 in a single week.

Efforts to hire 138 more employees, most federally funded, are now proceeding, with a partnership with L.L. Bean to hire and train new employees. That will eventually deal with the current backlog, although Bellows said it’s hard to predict when that will be, since new claims are still being filed.

Bellows is less forgiving about what she called another “stunning” disclosure by Fortman, that no changes have been made to online forms left behind by the previous administration.

“Paul LePage didn’t want to pay people unemployment benefits,” Bellows said. “He wanted to make it difficult.”

Fortman responded to questions by saying that, under the existing vendor contract, the “Re-Employ ME” website can’t easily be altered.

To Bellows, that’s unacceptable.

“If they need to renegotiate the contract, they should,” she said. “We can’t have thousands of people who need benefits urgently keep waiting and waiting.”

— Douglas Rooks

State Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton.

Carpenter: ‘How do we enforce a quarantine?’

State Sen. Mike Carpenter, D-Houlton, was among four legislators appointed to Gov. Janet Mills’s 37-member Economy Recovery Committee – probably, he said, because he represents one of Maine’s most rural districts, where COVID-19 cases may be low and federal relief funding is scarce.

Along with his legislative duties and legal practice, Carpenter is also a small business owner, and – like thousands of others – is uncertain if, or when, he might start serving customers again. He said he doesn’t envy Mills, or any governor, in trying to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. 

Carpenter’s family has a concession for horse-drawn carriage rides in Acadia National Park, and reservations are normally booming by now. Instead, he’s mailing refunds. Opening day has been pushed back to June 13, and it’s unclear whether rides will start then.

“It will be very different. We usually have 10 in a carriage, and it will be much less,” due to required distancing, Carpenter said. “We like to say we charge Maine prices, but now they’ll be urban prices. … I have to feed my horses, and they’re big animals.”

As for employees – mostly out-of-state college students – Carpenter thinks he can manage 14-day quarantines. “I’ll just have to tell them they can’t go to Bar Harbor,” he said.

Even so, he finds it hard to envision the state controlling the tide of tourists, whenever restrictions are eventually relaxed.

“We can’t keep people from coming over the border, and when they do, how do we enforce a quarantine?” he said.

Carpenter has doubts, not just about his business, but whether coronavirus can be excluded from a state so far spared the worst. Executive orders, he said, may be “like trying to turn back the Atlantic Ocean with a spatula.”

— Douglas Rooks

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