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There has been a total of one official hearing conducted by a Maine legislative committee since mid-March when members suspended session. The state’s legislative calendar is currently free of meetings until the fourth week of June, when the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission is scheduled to convene earlier than normal and assess the revenue implications of the pandemic.
Suspending the session made sense in March from a safety standpoint, but the Maine Legislature is overdue for more official engagement and oversight as the administration of Gov. Janet Mills continues to wrestle with the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
If the Massachusetts legislature can hold virtual hearings this week in its revenue committee, if Vermont’s House and Senate health committees can hold a remote joint meeting on the COVID-19 response and telehealth services, then surely Maine legislative committees can convene more public discussions on pressing issues too. While both of those states are currently in session and Maine isn’t, legislators in Augusta have already proven that meetings using videoconferencing and a minimum number of members physically present are possible, if complicated, even when session is suspended.
It has been two weeks since the Labor and Housing Committee held the Legislature’s first committee meeting since March, with members questioning Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman remotely. It’s time for more public-facing committee work.
The offices of both Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson told the BDN Wednesday that there are plans in the works for the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to meet. They indicated that could include work involving the economic impact of the pandemic, such as the current budget and revenue situation, and state legislative input on federal spending such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That would be a welcome development.
According to Jackson’s office, there are multiple committees requesting that virtual public briefings from state departments happen on a regular basis, which wouldn’t be formal committee hearings and would put the administration in charge of the logistics. The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, for instance, has started providing weekly updates from Commissioner Heather Johnson via Zoom.
The Legislature should prioritize expanding oversight, planning and publicly visible collaboration with the Mills administration related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s at least one other matter that warrants legislative attention and fact-finding at the moment.
The allegations that a Maine State Police unit illegally gathered and maintained data in 2017 and 2018, while Paul LePage was governor and Mills was attorney general, deserve scrutiny from the legislative branch even as the lawsuit containing the allegations works its way through the courts.
Two Republican leaders, Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner and Rep. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, have called for the police unit in question, the Maine Intelligence Analysis Center, to receive regular oversight from at least one legislative committee. And they want that oversight to start with a committee meeting as soon as possible.
“At a time when Mainers are already skeptical of the operations of state government, these allegations demand attention from the legislature to ensure that the rights of Maine citizens aren’t being trampled upon under the familiar guise of ‘public safety,’” Stewart said in a statement.
When asked about Maine not conducting more remote hearings thus far during the pandemic, Maine House Republican spokesperson John Bott deferred to Gideon and Jackson, citing their power over the schedule. Bott said House Republicans have repeatedly “called for more information and input into the governor’s decisions regarding the reopening of the Maine economy before it is too late.”
Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby said that while the presiding officers ultimately must give committees permission to meet out of session, committees still need a quorum, which is seven members, in order to start a meeting. While Maine law allows for certain public proceedings to be conducted completely remotely during the current state of emergency declared by Mills, that does not apply to proceedings of the Legislature.
We continue to hope that a spirit of teamwork will win out as the state confronts this pandemic.
It’s worth noting that, in normal times, Maine’s citizen legislature would already have concluded its session, with the statutory adjournment date being the third Wednesday in April. But these, of course, are not normal times. The immediate and mounting problems created by the coronavirus require immediate action and debate. It’s not too much to ask that our elected officials conduct regular, remote public meetings as part of that response.