House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, speak at a 2018 news conference. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

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AUGUSTA, Maine — A stalemate over how the Legislature should reconvene for the first time in four months deepened on Thursday after Republicans doomed a return bid while seeking narrow terms for an election-year session.

Lawmakers have long felt pressure to return as constituents struggle with issues including high unemployment amid the coronavirus. When the Legislature adjourned in March as the virus bore down on Maine, it ceded power to Gov. Janet Mills to manage the virus response.

Since then, the Legislature has had little power in dealing with the pandemic. A tentative August return remained uncertain on Thursday after most Republicans declined to participate in a poll asking lawmakers if they wanted to come back. A majority of members of each party had to agree.

Republicans, who have long pushed for a return and called in May to strip the Democratic governor of the emergency powers she used to enact economic restrictions that have largely lifted, want to return only to address budget issues or those directly related to the virus.

Democrats say leaving myriad bills held when the Legislature adjourned behind until 2021 would be a waste of time. The Legislature’s muted role in the response became a major issue in Maine’s U.S. Senate campaign after Republican incumbent Susan Collins used it to criticize House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who won her party’s nomination on Tuesday.

The virus-induced economic slowdown may set some of the terms. Maine has projected a $525 million revenue shortfall by mid-2021, while revenue for the fiscal year ending in late June is expected to come in about $135 million under budget, in part due to delayed income tax filing.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he has told members that bills with large price tags are “probably not going to happen” and that they should use their judgment ahead of a special session that he envisioned could last approximately two days.

“It is up to the committees to do their work, not for leadership to pick winners and losers,” he said.

The Democratic priority list is divided between bills that relate to the virus and others that have less of a connection. A task force researching existing bills to combat racial inequities that have come into focus amid the virus and protests after police killings nationally will finalize a slate of high-priority measures next month.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the panel’s chair, said it’s “critical these bills move forward, while Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, the co-chair of the health committee, said bills that would roll back estate recovery, reduce disability services waitlists and give pay raises to direct care workers could help vulnerable Mainers now.

“Having to take those bills through the process all over again would be really redundant and a shame,” she said.

Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, the co-chair of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, said a bill giving guidelines on the types of all-terrain vehicles allowed on recreational trails — was “very important” because the activity allows people to adhere to social distancing protocols.

But Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he was not convinced there are any bills remaining that constitute an emergency after the Legislature passed a flurry in March, saying they had “resolved all the bond issues we needed to” then.

It might be different, he said, if state revenue forecasters come back with a report of a serious shortfall that affects this year’s budget. Timberlake said a shortfall of $500 million or more would be worthy of emergency action, but anything else can wait.

“It’s like driving in a snowstorm,” he said. “You have to weigh the risk out. If it’s worth it, then you go out and you be careful, and you do what you can.”

Some Republicans think returning outright may be the best option. The outgoing Rep. Scott Strom of Pittsfield, the one Republican who voted to come back, said a conservative constituent called him on Thursday and said he wondered why his party didn’t follow him.

Strom noted Mills can call lawmakers back “any time she wants.” While he generally agreed with fellow Republicans’ desire for narrower terms, he said he cast his vote because lawmakers must return. But he also thought a deal would eventually be reached.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back,” he said.

For his part, Jackson said he was hesitant to ask Mills to bring lawmakers back unless party leaders cannot come to an agreement. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.

“If it comes down to it, we’ll maybe approach the governor, but at this point, it’s a legislative matter,” he said.