AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature is exploring the Augusta Civic Center as the target location for a return from a months-long layoff that has not been finalized and would come with a large set of logistical hurdles.
They include how to accommodate Gov. Janet Mills’ order barring gatherings of more than 50 people, whether the public would be able to attend, how to set up video and audio systems that are hardwired at the State House and moving employees and their equipment across the city.
Details are still being worked out. Nothing has been finalized and the Legislature would have to vote or be called back by the governor to return to Augusta. But tentative plans would put the House of Representatives in the main auditorium of the civic center, while the 35-member Senate would be in the north wing and various meeting rooms would be used for committees.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature has been out of session since mid-March due to the coronavirus, except for committee discussions of issues sensitive to the pandemic. Legislative leaders have confirmed they could return as soon as August, but what that session would look like is not determined as minority Republicans want to limit discussion to virus-related items.
Secretary of the Senate Darek Grant, who is also an Augusta city councilor, said he reached out to staff at the city-owned center in early May to see if using it would be possible. The Legislature has long used it for events with large crowds, including inaugurations of governors and and a 2009 hearing on a same-sex marriage bill that drew thousands.
Grant said consideration of the spot has “ramped up” over the last month and no other options are being explored at this time, he said.
Lawmakers would likely rent the entire 49,000-square foot building, said Earl Kingsbury, the director of the center. That costs about $6,000 the first day and $4,000 afterward. It would be on top of the normal costs of a special legislative session, pegged at $42,081 for the first day in a week and $36,445 for each additional day in 2018.
There are also political logistics to consider. Republicans who are frustrated by Mills’ handling of the pandemic despite Maine having some of the lowest cases in the country have opposed economic restrictions that continue to lift. Some majority Democrats have criticized how those policies have been developed and communicated.
In statements on Monday, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, defended the Legislature’s role over the last four months. Gideon said legislative panels are best positioned to “propose urgent and equitable legislation” to mitigate harm from the virus and Jackson said lawmakers are aiding constituents.
“We have a job to finish, and when it is safe for the general public, we will do so,” Jackson said.
The minority party has called for lawmakers to return in part to strip Mills of her emergency powers, something that is unlikely to occur in a Democratic-controlled State House. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he is not interested in returning unless the agenda deals with virus and budget-related issues only.
“In this environment, it’s not the right thing to do,” he said.