If the debate over when the Maine Legislature ought to return to Augusta and get back to work has your head spinning, you’re not the only one.

Back in May, House and Senate Republicans got together to demand that the Legislature reconvene. They were frustrated with Gov. Mills’ reopening plan, developed by the executive branch without input from the legislative branch, and by her overall lack of communication with the Legislature. Back then, House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson weren’t interested in getting back to work – at least, not just to start picking a fight with Gov. Mills.

A few weeks ago (conveniently, after the primaries were over), the Democrats suddenly shifted gears, and decided they wanted to do their job again after all. So, they sent out a survey to legislators asking if they were interested in returning. Republicans didn’t respond to the survey, and since the Legislature needs bipartisan consensus for a special session, that scuttled the idea. Now we have no idea when or if the Maine Legislature will return.

On the surface, it would seem that this is a simple reversal of position by Republicans: First they couldn’t wait to get back to work, now they don’t want to at all. While that might be a nice talking point for Democrats, the reality is a little more complicated. When the Republican Party wanted to return back in May, it was to curb the emergency powers of Gov. Mills. It should come as no surprise that Democrats didn’t want to do that.

Republicans are not, in fact, entirely opposed to returning. What they don’t want to do is return to Augusta and engage in a special session that just picks right up where they left off when they adjourned in March. They’ve been clear about that throughout, and it’s not an unreasonable approach. That’s why they asked to return back in May, and why they rejected a call to return in July.

When the Legislature adjourned back in March, it was facing its usual slate of bills for a second session. Many of these bills would be completely ridiculous and unnecessary in normal times, but returning to debate them in the midst of a pandemic is totally absurd. Republicans are right to insist that the issues addressed in any potential special session be tightly focused on pandemic response and the budget, but Gideon didn’t offer that in her survey. Now is not the time for legislators to be debating bills that they introduced last year; instead, they ought to be laser-focused on resolving the true emergencies facing the state.

Now, there’s certainly room for negotiation here about the scope of any potential special session. Republicans might not be able to completely get their way and limit all work to pandemic and budget issues, but there definitely should be limitations. That’s not just because many of the bills aren’t exactly vital, but also because there is not much time left before the election. With each passing day as we march inexorably closer to November, it will become harder and harder to get bipartisan consensus to do anything in Augusta.

It’s also worth noting that every single day in a special session costs vastly more than a regular session day, and that’s not just because they’re planning to rent out the Augusta Civic Center rather than meeting in the State House. That’s why, even during ordinary times when they can use the State House and don’t need extra safety precautions, special sessions ought to be kept brief and limited. During the current pandemic, that’s more true than ever: A free-flowing special session would contribute to the state’s budget deficit even as it struggled to resolve it.

It would be nice to think that leadership in both parties is talking behind the scenes to resolve these issues, but there’s no reason to believe that’s actually happening. Instead, the two parties seem to be involved in a war of words in public, which doesn’t benefit the people of Maine in any way, shape or form.

It also reflects a true lack of leadership on the part of both Jackson and Gideon, who seem unwilling to concede any ground to their Republican colleagues. Gideon may like to brag about how bipartisan she is in her U.S. Senate campaign ads, but it turns out that when push comes to shove she literally can’t even get Republicans to answer a simple question. That’s a shame, because now more than ever Maine needs real bipartisan leadership.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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