Legislative leaders are intensifying their talks about how and when to bring state lawmakers back to Augusta roughly three months after Gov. Janet Mills began using her office’s broad emergency powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers have largely been sidelined since March after they quickly adjourned the 2020 session a month early as Maine recorded the first COVID-19 infections.

House Speaker Sara Gideon faces growing bipartisan support for the Legislature to reassert its power as a co-equal branch of government. File photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

But since then, thousands of Mainers have been unable to collect unemployment because of dysfunction at the Maine Department of Labor, resulting in lawmakers being flooded with pleas for assistance from constituents. Tensions flared last week when the department’s commissioner did not attend an oversight hearing.

House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, the top Democrats in the Legislature, have done little to publicly challenge Mills, a member of their own party. Both say they generally support Mills’ actions on the pandemic, but recently convened legislative committees to renew legislative oversight even as they continue to share concerns raised by constituents and other lawmakers with the administration.

But some question whether legislative leaders are doing enough.

“It doesn’t seem like the Democratic leaders want to break ranks with the governor no matter how bad she is doing on unemployment,” said Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn,

Adding to the partisan dynamics, Gideon is making a high-profile run for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in November and has been targeted by an advertising campaign questioning her leadership during the pandemic.

While the most vocal criticism from within the Legislature has come from Republican ranks, there is growing bipartisan support for lawmakers to reassert their powers as a co-equal branch of government.

Senate President Troy Jackson, seen on Jan. 8, agrees with most of what the Mills administration has done in response to the pandemic but wishes the reasons for decisions were better communicated to lawmakers. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I certainly feel like we are getting close to the point where we may reconvene and, at that time, her emergency powers either won’t be the same or they won’t be there at all,” Jackson, D-Allagash, said on Wednesday. “She’ll have to work with us in a different way. We are getting close.”

Neither Jackson nor Gideon would provide a specific timeframe because the details have yet to be worked out about how best to safely reconvene amid an ongoing public crisis, although Jackson said it would likely be a month and possibly longer. One option under consideration is finding an alternative venue, particularly for the 151 House members who sit just a foot or two from one another on the chamber floor.

Gideon, D-Freeport, said she is working closely with Jackson on options for bringing lawmakers back together, but added that any session should be about addressing issues affecting Mainers, not “partisan bickering or stripping powers” from the governor.

“This governor and her administration are facing a crisis of epic proportions and I have tremendous respect for the work that her and her administration have done,” Gideon said. “But I also think our job as people in government is to always be asking ourselves, ‘How can we do this better?'”

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to press for more information and fewer restrictions on businesses or the out-of-state visitors who make up the bulk of Maine’s tourism economy.

“I’m trying to figure out how decisions are being made,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Sen. Dana Down of Waldoboro. “I don’t know if they have a special group that is meeting to come up with a plan but … it just seems to me that the only thing that has been important is physical health, and economic health always second – or physical health is numbers one through nine, and economic health is number 10 on the list.”

Mills, who served as Maine’s attorney general before being elected governor, could call the Legislature back into special session at any time. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mills said she told legislative leaders in March she would do that “when it is safe to do so,” but indicated she is not prepared to do that yet.

Mills also defended her administration’s transparency efforts and communications with legislators, pointing to weekly email updates to lawmakers, regular communications with legislative leaders and “unfettered” access to commissioners.

“I was a legislator for six years … and I really respect the processes and functions of the Legislature,” Mills said. “And I look forward to working with them and continuing to listen to them on constituent issues and process concerns.”

TASK FORCE REJECTED

Legislative committees recently began meeting again – with most attending via videoconference – to delve into issues related to the COVID-19 crisis that has sickened thousands of Mainers and caused 100 deaths.

In May, Gideon and Jackson wrote a letter to Mills formally requesting that she create a “COVID-19 response task force” to include at least eight legislators. The task force, they wrote, would supplement the longer-term work expected to be done by an Economic Recovery Committee created by Mills and could help better position the state for a resurgence of COVID-19 or future public health threats.

“The task force could begin meeting immediately, solicit public input, and provide regular updates on its work to the administration, the Legislature and to the public,” Gideon and Jackson wrote Mills.

Mills rejected the idea, saying it was based on “a misimpression that our administration has not been responsive to or is not consulting the Legislature on matters of restarting Maine’s economy.” In response, Mills wrote there is already a “robust flow of information and advice” between the two branches, although she welcomed input from the Legislature’s budget-writing committee on how to use $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding.

“This administration always welcomes positive suggestions to inform our response to the pandemic, and we will continue to respond to them from you and other members of the Legislature,” Mills wrote. “But I cannot agree to create a commission I believe would only divert from the critical and time-sensitive work we are doing and inject an unnecessary layer of political partisanship into these very sensitive decisions.”

POWER BALANCE ISSUES

Maine’s debate over the power balance between the executive and legislative branches is not happening in a vacuum.

In states across the nation, legislators are seeking to reassert their governance role in response to concerns that governors are not acting quickly enough to reopen sectors of the economy.

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, for instance, voted Tuesday to order to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to end his COVID-19 emergency declaration. In Mississippi, Republican lawmakers moved last month to block the Republican governor from spending federal COVID-19 funds. And in some states, lawmakers have joined lawsuits seeking to overturn their governor’s orders restricting businesses and churches.

Maine’s Democratic legislative leaders have, to date, been largely deferential of the Democratic governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, although there have been flash points.

Last week, for instance, Democrats and Republicans slammed Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman for not appearing before a legislative committee discussing the problems processing unemployment claims. Some Democratic lawmakers in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties also lamented that they were not informed by Mills prior to her administration’s decision to delay dine-in service at restaurants in those three counties.

Jackson, who works as a logger when he is not presiding as Senate president, said he agrees with most of what the Mills administration has done and that the economic reopening decisions were based on scientific or health data. But Jackson said he wishes the reasons for decisions were better communicated to himself and other lawmakers.

“We have had some conversations,” Jackson said of his talks with Mills. “Sometimes they have gone well, sometimes they haven’t. I am able to talk at least to her staff. I certainly understand that her schedule is more challenging than mine … but that has been frustrating to me at times.”

Republican lawmakers have been more openly critical.

Guerin, the senator from Glenburn, said that Mills has “insulated herself so completely that she is not hearing the desperation from businesses and from everyday people.”

“I really do have contact with a lot of people, and a lot of people want me to take their thoughts and concerns to the governor,” Guerin said. “The governor has cut off the ability of the senators and the representatives to represent the people of the state of Maine. She has huddled down … with the people she chose instead of the representatives that the people chose.”

EMERGENCY POWERS

Maine’s statutes give the governor sweeping authority to respond to emergencies – powers explicitly granted to the office by lawmakers over the decades. The original, March 15 emergency declaration that Mills extended to July 10 on Wednesday enabled her to quickly mobilize or shift state resources and access federal funds.

The law also allows the governor to “take whatever action is necessary to abate, clean up or mitigate whatever danger may exist within the affected area.” A 1983 law requires that emergency declarations be renewed every 30 days, but stated that “the Legislature, by proclamation, may terminate a state of emergency at anytime.”

In mid-May, House Republican Leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Turner, submitted legislation to do just that and to more broadly scale back the emergency powers granted to the governor. Additionally, an online petition circulated by the conservative think tank the Maine Policy Institute to reconvene the Legislature and end the emergency proclamation had been supported by more than 1,200 individuals as of Wednesday.

Dillingham’s proposal can’t even get a debate until Jackson and Gideon agree to reconvene the Legislature. Both have portrayed the measure as a partisan move against the Democratic governor.

But Dow, the Republican leader in the Maine Senate, said no one envisioned the emergency would last as long as it has.

“In those (emergency) situations, I agree that you have to act and act quickly,” Dow said. “But this is different … and is almost like a war with an unseen enemy. And no one can tell us when this is all going to end.”

Gideon has also been targeted by Republicans, but for a different reason. The campaign and allies of Collins, the Republican U.S. Senate incumbent, have accused Gideon – despite the near-unilateral emergency powers given to the governor – of not doing enough during the coronavirus epidemic.

Asked about the political criticism, Gideon said that in addition to fielding concerns raised by her own constituents, she has been regularly raising issues with Mills or her staff and communicating with Republican legislative leaders. More recently, Gideon and Jackson have worked with the chairs of committees as they begin to resume work and are developing plans to bring the Legislature back.

For her part, Mills said that “these are no ordinary times” and that her administration has been “very transparent with the people of Maine” about the reasons for decisions as they try to balance public health with economic concerns. To date, Maine has among the nation’s lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates.

“No one expected this to happen … and we have been responding in accordance with the law to protect the public health,” Mills said. “And I think we have done a pretty good job of it.”

As for legislators, Mills said her door is always open to them, but added with a laugh, “virtually, not physically.”

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