Members of the Maine House take their oath of office on Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Some State House leaders struck a collaborative tone as lawmakers kicked off an unusual legislative session Wednesday, with their first order of business figuring out some key elements of how the House and Senate will run during a pandemic-altered session.

Newly-sworn in legislators passed an order that will allow legislative committees to meet and cast votes electronically, rather than in person. One of the ongoing questions lawmakers have faced when trying to plan a session during the coronavirus pandemic is how to meet safely while still abiding by Gov. Janet Mills’ limit on how many people can gather indoors.

The order, put forward by Senate Majority Leader Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, will designate a legislative meeting or proceeding held electronically to have legally “occurred at the seat of the government.” 

It also allows any member participating in a meeting electronically to be considered present for purposes of having a quorum, and it lets members of the public participate in meetings electronically. Votes can be cast electronically as long as the committee’s chairs can see the member.

Lawmakers on Wednesday elected Democrat Sen. Shenna Bellows of Manchester to be the first woman secretary of state, replacing outgoing Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who in turn was elected as state auditor. Attorney General Aaron Frey and State Treasurer Henry Beck, both Democrats, also secured second terms as constitutional officers. 

Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead swore in new members in place of Mills, who is quarantining after a member of her security detail potentially exposed her to the coronavirus. Mills addressed both chambers via video after their members were sworn in. Members were mostly masked up — a requirement to use the Augusta Civic Center — as a protest against mandatory mask requirements took place early Wednesday morning outside.

Gov. Janet Mills addresses members of the Legislature electronically at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. Mills was scheduled to swear in the newly elected Legislature, but she is in quarantine after she was potentially exposed to the coronavirus. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

State Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, became the next House speaker, one of the youngest in the state’s history. He is joined in leadership by Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, as House majority leader and assistant majority leader respectively. Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, D-Oxford, and Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, will serve as House minority leader and assistant minority leader, respectively.

In the Senate, Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was elected to another term as Senate president. He will be joined in Democratic leadership by Libby and Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, who will serve as assistant majority leader. Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, is Senate minority leader, while Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, will serve as assistant minority leader.

Republicans, who have been pushing to limit Mills’ executive powers for months, are already planning to put forward measures to do so. Rep. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, proposed on Tuesday a resolution meant to address Mills’ use of emergency declarations. Mills has used her emergency powers throughout the pandemic to institute virus-related restrictions on public and private gatherings, mask wearing and business operations.

Clockwise from left: State Rep. Ryan M. Fecteau, D-Biddeford, is sworn in as Speaker of the House by Clerk of House Robert B. Hunt at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday; Gov. Janet Mills addresses members of the Legislature electronically; Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is sworn in as Senate President by Andrew Meade, acting chief justice; Protesters against mandatory mask requirements gathered outside; Votes are counted before Fecteau was sworn in. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Pouliot said he plans to put forward a separate motion that would require that a state of emergency declaration from the governor receive approval from two-thirds of lawmakers. With the new legislature sworn in, he said, “we have an opportunity to be part of that process.”

The measure will likely face a tough road in a State House controlled by Democrats. After being sworn in, Fecteau said Mills’ emergency declarations had been vital for the state to receive federal funding to help carry it through the pandemic.

But the two parties may not be so far apart in some areas and seemed willing to work together after months of sniping over the Legislature not returning for a special session after adjourning at the start of the pandemic in March.

Fecteau said Democrats’ “first priority” will be addressing the pandemic, calling on lawmakers to encourage the federal government to provide “immediate relief” for families, businesses and communities.

Pouliot agreed, but added that the Legislature will need to “tighten up” the state budget, referring to an expected shortfall that, despite rosier recent revenue projections, will still prove to be a challenge for lawmakers.

“It’s going to require an unprecedented amount of commitment to collaborating with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Fecteau also called for the Legislature to focus on providing quality education, increasing the state’s energy independence and broadband access, and improving health care.

“We have to pledge to each other to see every person at every desk in this auditorium as a partner, not a partisan,” he said during his speech.