Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, speaks in the Maine House of Representatives chamber in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats leading the Maine House of Representatives on Wednesday turned back a Republican effort to strip Gov. Janet Mills of the emergency power she has been using to manage the state’s coronavirus pandemic response.

The initial 81-67 vote came as one of the first actions taken by the chamber as it convened for the first time in 2021 on Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center, which is hosting full sessions of the Legislature instead of the State House because it is easier to spread lawmakers out.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Peter Lyford, R-Eddington, would repeal the state of emergency declared by Mills nearly a year ago after the first virus case was detected in Maine. Lawmakers quickly adjourned the Legislature and handed power to the Democratic governor to allocate money and issue orders governing the response.

But minority Republicans grew tired of the orders that imposed economic restrictions throughout the spring and summer. Party leaders supported a plan in May to repeal the powers and allow businesses to reopen. That Legislature never returned to Augusta, so Wednesday’s vote was the first on the issue since the pandemic began here in earnest.

Democratic opponents of Lyford’s measure said the emergency order has allowed the state to easily access federal aid and distribute money or change course quickly during the pandemic. House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, said Mills’ powers “diminish not one word of our constitutional authority or our responsibility.”

“The emergency powers do, however, allow our government to continue to respond swiftly … to changing conditions,” she said.

Two Republicans backing the measure on Wednesday said they would not have supported it a few months ago, but that the improving course of the virus a year into the pandemic should lead to more collaboration. One in five Mainers have received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and the governor released a spring and summer economic reopening plan last week.

“For several weeks now, we have been doing the people’s business, proposed bills and committee hearings,” Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said of the Legislature. “There is no longer a reason for the chief executive to have to act alone to implement new rules and regulations to deal with the pandemic.”

The vote fell largely along party lines. Rep. Nathan Carlow of Buxton was the only Republican to vote with the Democrats. Three independents — Jeff Evangelos of Friendship, Bill Pluecker of Appleton and Walter Riseman of Harrison — voted with the Republicans.

All states also declared emergencies at the beginning of the pandemic. Only two states have no such order in place now, but some southern governors have set their orders to end this month or next month, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Mills has extended Maine’s order 12 times since mid-March of last year.

Lyford’s measure still faces a vote in the Democratic-led Senate, but the House vote means that it is effectively doomed. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has a similar resolution that has not yet been taken up in the upper chamber.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the number of times Gov. Janet Mills extended her civil state of emergency order.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...