A group of lawmakers sit in the State House in Augusta.
Member of the House of Representatives look up as a vote is tallied during the final session, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Hours after Gov. Janet Mills signed a $1.2 billion spending package budget into law last week, lawmakers were scrambling for about $1.2 million.

They were successful. Maine will soon pilot a public defender’s office, a step many see as critical to fixing a long-underfunded Commission on Indigent Legal Services. But it was only a sliver of the agency’s $8.1 million budget request while it faces a lawsuit from advocates arguing the state is falling short of meeting a constitutional obligation to defend low-income Mainers.

Last-minute deals are a part of life in the State House, where it is not unusual for high-profile issues to be ironed out during late nights in the last part of short sessions. But this scramble for money and other key 2022 debates highlight how the structure of work in Augusta puts pressure on part-time lawmakers serving two-year terms to solve big problems with little time.

“A lot of your big problems are not terribly sexy,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Democratic state senator and attorney general from Houlton, adding that is especially the case in election years like this one.

Lawmakers routinely take up 2,000 or more bills every two years, with virtually all of them getting public hearings. That workload makes it difficult for lawmakers to build knowledge across a range of topics, said Jeff McCabe, a former Democratic legislative leader who now works for the state employees’ union. It also burdens nonpartisan staff as sessions wane, he added.

That was underscored last Wednesday, when majority Democrats tried three times to convince Republicans to extend the session in order to give nonpartisan staff time to print amendments to hundreds of bills that were awaiting funding. Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, called it a manufactured crisis of Democrats’ own making.

Everyone settled on a compromise — one extra day — but lawmakers spent most of their time Wednesday at ease while staff moved bills between chambers. The night before, they had been at work until past midnight. They stayed into the evening on Monday, their last scheduled day, and lawmakers will return to handle potential vetoes from Mills on May 9.

Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, alluded to the dispute between Democrats and Republicans on timing as a “roadblock” during a Wednesday press conference advocating for the legal system money. Though the problem remains urgent, she said the state has many needs and the Legislature cannot address all of them.

“We accomplished as much as we could with all the competing priorities,” she said.

While committees often work well together to come up with policy solutions, translating that to 181 lawmakers with differing beliefs and levels of education on the topic can hold up legislation, Carpenter said. When a policy fight looks to be especially tough, lawmakers will often put it off in hopes of finding an easier solution.

Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, watches the vote tally as a member of the House of Representatives at the State House in Augusta on Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Carpenter’s legislative successor, Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, chalked some of those problems up to personal politics. Even when it is apparent a bill will face major opposition, such as Mills’ resistance to a sweeping tribal sovereignty bill still alive in the Legislature, lawmakers will wait until the last minute in a bid to push something through, he said.

Stewart also criticized so-called “concept drafts,” in which lawmakers file a bill without language that merely declares their intent to make a law in a certain subject area. That puts even more stress on both committees and nonpartisan staff to work on a measure.

“They don’t think they’re ever going to get another chance or another bite of the apple even though most of the time these are perennial things anyway,” he said of certain lawmakers.

Another long-term issue that will remain unsolved is what to do with Maine’s Child Development Services program, which provides special education to children under age 6. It has been the subject of several reorganization plans over the past 20 years, with the administrations of three straight governors recommending the services be shifted to school districts.

Advocates criticized the Mills administration’s late-session bill to shift the services beginning next summer as rushed. Skeptical lawmakers introduced an option to create a task force to guide the state through the transition. Supporters pushed back, saying enough time and money had been spent on the topic. In the end, no version passed and the bill died.

Everyone agrees the system needs change, noted Nancy Cronin, the executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, who opposed the changes. She saw the bill’s failure as a result of all parties not wanting to discuss a solution. She fears the issue will come up again next year and the cycle will start all over again.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “People just didn’t want to be in the same room together.”

To try to solve the Legislature’s own long-term issues, Stewart introduced a bill last year to study the effectiveness of the legislative process from term limits and the number of lawmakers to bill introductions and the budget process.

It got out of committee. Then it passed both chambers. It was then placed on a table on which reams of proposed studies compete for funding. A panel of legislative leaders voted to leave it there last week. It will almost certainly die, too.