Lawmakers and lobbyists gather in the hallway in this Jan. 2020 file photo from the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Tim Roche, the Wells High School football coach newly elected to the Maine House of Representatives, had a few weeks of post-election peace before the lobbying started.

The Republican got a trickle and then a deluge of emails and mailers from interest groups after securing a narrow win over a Democratic incumbent. Some were congratulatory. Others meant to tell Roche about their positions. A few advocates invited him to introductory Zoom meetings to talk about legislative priorities.

“I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t get a piece of mail that isn’t addressed to Rep. Roche,” he said.

Lobbyists always try to get to know lawmakers when a new session starts, but the coronavirus pandemic may alter how relationships are built and negotiations handled as the 2021 session set to begin in earnest this January looks like it will take place more on Zoom and less in the State House.

Details are still being worked out, but the Augusta Civic Center is likely to serve as the main site of business. The State House has been closed to anyone who is not a lawmaker, staffer, delivery or contract worker or reporter since the pandemic hit. Lawmakers approved an order last week allowing committees to cast votes and the public to participate in meetings electronically, giving them more flexibility next session.

Such a regime would relegate lobbyists to non-essential status in 2021. Part of a maligned class, they play major roles in a Legislature subject to term limits, gathering between the chambers of the State House to oversee floor sessions for clients, testifying in hearings, detaining lawmakers in sidebar conversations, gossiping and affecting high-stakes work.

The pandemic could level the playing field as electronic access opens the political process to those who might not have the time to travel to Augusta. But it could also be harder to convene and affect negotiations that could become more complicated as those wanting to meet with lawmakers may need to set up phone or video meetings.

Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, a sixth-term lawmaker, said he can usually go to Augusta and have “30 to 40 conversations” before noon or run down to the House chamber for input on a bill. Setting up virtual conferences can take time that stretches days out even longer, he said.

Bruce Gerrity, a senior partner at lobbying powerhouse Preti Flaherty who has represented auto dealers and insurance companies, said lawmakers working more from home or separated from the lobby will challenge him and his colleagues in connecting and getting points across.

“Even if you’re doing your best to focus on the Legislature, other things intrude,” Gerrity said over the whine of Errigal, a German Shepherd puppy he recently acquired who was determined to leave the room his owner was working in.

Jim Mitchell of the lobbying firm Mitchell Tardy Jackson and a former Maine Democratic Party chairman, said the “vast majority” of his communication with lawmakers is informal — on elevator rides or in line for coffee. Without that, he said lobbyists will struggle to respond to the fast-paced nature of the Legislature, where policy can sharply shift over a few hours.

“It’s going to be a great detriment to us,” he said.

Clients pay big for that access. Lobbyists reported $2 million in compensation during the shortened 2020 session, according to Maine Ethics Commission data that does not capture all compensation. By comparison, lobbyists reported $4.5 million in 2019.

Mitchell and his partners are among the biggest lobbying names in Augusta, having represented Walmart, PhRMA, Central Maine Power Co. and numerous other big-name clients. Mitchell, Chris Jackson and former House Republican Leader Josh Tardy brought in nearly $500,000 in reported compensation in 2020 — nearly a quarter of lobbyists’ entire sum.

CMP reported $43,000 last year in part and will face a complicated political season in 2021 as a new crop of legislators look more hostile to the embattled utility fighting on multiple fronts against opponents of its proposed $1 billion hydropower corridor who are pushing a referendum and lawsuits looking to blunt the project.

David Flanagan, CMP’s executive chairman, said the tough political situation, along with future climate talks, will make contact with lobbyists more crucial this session.

“We have to be innovative, no matter what the mechanism is,” he said.

But Becky Smith, a legislative liaison for the Maine Community College System and the Maine Maritime Academy, said the electronic format could also be a boon for the people she represents. Her role often finds her fighting corporate lobbyists for lawmakers’ attention and speaking for students and workers who cannot travel to Augusta during budget talks.

In a year when a massive virus-related revenue shortfall will be a major driver of conversations around a new two-year budget, those people can now work while waiting for their turn to speak on a Zoom call.

“Me retelling a story is not as effective as having a person speak to the policymakers themselves,” Smith said.