Majority leaders in the Maine Legislature said Thursday that they would call several key committees back to work in the days ahead, as lawmakers look to aid in the state’s response to and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said five committees – including those with oversight for state finances, education, agriculture and forestry, health and human services, and labor and housing – would hold briefings over the next four weeks, starting Friday.

“Committees initially will focus on unemployment issues, the unique challenges faced by agriculture and small businesses, the reopening of Maine’s economy, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and the impact on medical facilities, including the outsized impact on long-term care facilities,” Jackson and Gideon said in a written statement.

The announcement came a day after Gov. Janet Mills announced she was postponing the reopening of restaurants for indoor dining in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties, where community spread of the virus has been prevalent. The change drew fire from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in those counties, who criticized Mills, a Democrat, for not providing more advance notice.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, said Mills did not consult lawmakers about the change and that the late notice – five days before the restaurants would have reopened – was “unacceptable.”

“Restaurants here in Lewiston were diligently preparing to open in just a few days under the guidance they had,” Libby wrote. “They were ordering food for delivery. They were training staff on new physical distancing requirements. They were getting ready to operate safely, then they had the rug pulled out from under them.”

Only one legislative committee has met since the state began strict physical distancing guidelines. The Labor and Housing Committee gathered for a briefing earlier this month by Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman on delays and other problems unemployed workers have been facing as they try to sign up for unemployment insurance benefits.

While Democrats have been careful not to criticize Mills publicly as she works to guide the state through a historic global public health crisis, Republicans have been less constrained in their complaints, especially about her schedule for when small businesses can begin operating again.

Republicans have made regular complaints about Mills’ reopening plan and also have criticized the governor for not consulting them as she developed the state’s response to the pandemic.

“This is at least a step toward some type of oversight, since the Governor has refused to include the House and Senate in any decision making. We have continuously heard from Maine citizens and business owners that are questioning the arbitrary orders and guidelines by the Governor and her advisors,” House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said in a prepared statement Thursday.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will be the first committee to meet, starting at 10 a.m. Friday.

That will be followed by two committee meetings each of the next two weeks, and the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs will convene the week after that. Specific dates and times for those meetings have not been scheduled.

The committees, which comprise 13 lawmakers, intend to follow physical distancing practices, but will meet in a way that will be accessible to both the media and the public, Gideon and Jackson said.

“As legislators, our job is to represent the perspectives, experiences and concerns of our constituents. These committee meetings mark the next logical step. I look forward to working with my colleagues, the administration and experts to get things done,” Jackson said.

In an effort to prevent the spread of the illness, the 186-member Legislature adjourned in early March as the virus accelerated in the United States and the first infections began to appear in Maine.

Since then, the state has largely been governed by executive orders issued by Mills, using broad executive powers granted by the Legislature in an emergency budget bill before it adjourned.

But as the Mills administration has begun to loosen restrictions on businesses and community activities – groups of up to 50 people, increased from  groups of 10, will be allowed to gather starting Monday – lawmakers are eager to get back to their work.

Gideon said lawmakers had already been at work in their own communities listening to constituents while working to solve problems presented by the virus and the constraints placed on commerce and society aimed at slowing the spread of infection.

“Moving forward, our legislative committees will resume meeting to ensure we have the tools necessary to both secure and support our recovery across all sectors,” Gideon said. “We know Mainers are facing untold economic hardship, and we can only face this historic challenge by working together.”

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