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It would have been irresponsible for the Maine Legislature not to suspend session in March. Given what was known and unknown about the COVID-19 pandemic at the time, it made sense to ensure that this group of more than 180 legislators, staff and the members of the public who join them in Augusta did not become a coronavirus hotspot.
Now, with a better understanding of how the virus spreads and how it is impacting public health and the economy, it would be irresponsible for legislators not to come back into session and play a more active role in the state’s response.
We’ve been pushing for greater legislative oversight and engagement for months, with the caveat that practical and public health hurdles remain. Pure partisanship should not add another hurdle as lawmakers consider returning for a special session.
A back-and-forth of open letters and press releases between Democratic and Republican leaders last week has us worried that this could spiral into an unproductive situation, similar but more consequential than last year’s disappointing special session to consider several bond proposals. So we offer this challenge to leadership and all members in both parties: please prove us wrong.
Last week, the Legislative Council agreed on new COVID-19 safety protocols for legislative work including health screenings and a mask requirement. Safety must continue to be a priority. After all, the Maine Legislature certainly should want to avoid the experience of Mississippi, where over 40 state lawmakers have now tested positive for COVID-19.
This week, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and President of the Senate Troy Jackson have been polling all legislators, asking them, “Do you favor returning for a special session in August at the Augusta Civic Center?” Gideon and Jackson, both Democrats, can call the Legislature back in for a special session, but only with support from majorities of legislative Democrats and Republicans. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills can also call legislators back into session.
The answer to the poll question, due Thursday, should be yes across the board. In a sense, it’s a way for Republicans to take “yes” for an answer after repeatedly calling for a return to Augusta. But they also are right to want more details about what that special session could look like, beyond what was included in a Tuesday letter from Jackson and Gideon. With control of both chambers, and regardless of whether this poll succeeds or not, Democratic leaders have a responsibility to pursue collaboration and cooperation during this time of historic uncertainty.
Republicans previously called for exclusively returning to end Mills’ emergency proclamation, which was first put in place in March. They now would like to limit a special session to emergency or virus related bills, according to Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow. They need to be more flexible.
While the Legislature’s work in a potential special session unquestionably should center on the COVID-19 response, particularly in regard to the hundreds of millions of unspent federal coronavirus relief that state still has, the Legislature has a responsibility to follow through on other pressing matters such as addressing racial disparities.
After four months in a state of emergency, it’s reasonable to revisit Mills’ emergency powers. There’s no doubt in our minds that the emergency proclamation and the governor’s resulting powers should remain in place, as this pandemic remains an emergency. But the idea of essentially indefinite emergency powers, without periodic review from the Legislature, should give everyone pause regardless of the governor or the situation.
It’s also imperative that the Legislature considers ways to enable full remote work in time for its next regular session. Jackson’s and Gideon’s offices have pointed to legal and constitutional concerns that prevent lawmakers from conducting businesses completely remotely. No matter who wins majorities in the Maine House and Senate in the November election, they may need more flexibility to conduct business safely during a pandemic with the added complications of flu season and winter in Maine.
We’re glad to hear from Jackson and Gideon’s offices that “there is significant interest among Democrats to ensure that the next Legislature can proceed with its work in January given that the pandemic and health and safety measures will likely still be a part of our daily lives,” but that interest needs to accelerate into specifics very quickly.
If full remote work requires a constitutional amendment, that should be developed and debated as part of a special session in August, so there is enough time to get it before voters in November.
It’s absolutely time for a special session, but as last year’s experience proved, simply having one isn’t enough. Leadership needs to take the steps now to make it collaborative and productive. They mustered that bipartisan spirit in March, and they need to do it again now.