Maine Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, is pictured at the Maine State House in Augusta on Sept. 26, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature started off 2022 with a partisan squabble as Republicans in both chambers challenged Democratic rules limiting in-person legislative meetings as the state continues to see high COVID-19 cases.

The vote on rules previewed by majority Democrats in December was the most heated debate on the first day of the new legislative session, a time largely used for procedural votes and sending bills to the correct committees. The Legislature has only scheduled two floor sessions in January and will retain virtual committee hearings similar to those in 2021.

Legislative rules are rarely debated in Augusta. Republicans’ willingness to fight them on Wednesday previewed what could be a contentious election-year session and a signal that contentious pandemic politics are not likely to go away in the next few months.

“I do believe that we need to try to be safe, but our job here is government and we’re here to represent our people and my people are out working every day,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield.

Democrats passed the rule in a 17-12 vote, with Sen. David Miramant of Camden the only party member siding with Republicans against it. Members of the majority party argued the rules are critical to keeping people safe early in the session and that virtual hearings bolster participation. The measure later passed in the House in a 73-53 vote.

Republicans advocated for a hybrid method in which the public could testify in person, saying the current policy hurts people with poor internet access and degrades lawmakers’ work.

A hybrid schedule could be possible in a month depending on the state of the pandemic, said Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, but he cited high cases and hospitalizations as top reasons to limit in-person work for now.

“I believe strongly that if there is any time [legislative leaders] should have taken up an order like this and pass it unanimously, it is now,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the partisan makeup of the Senate vote. Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, was the only member of his party voting with Republicans against the rules.