Members of the Maine House take the oath of office Dec. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center, set apart to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

The Maine Legislature could face a hefty added expense as its leaders wrestle with how they will do business in a session constricted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month the Legislature was sworn in at the 49,000-square-foot Augusta Civic Center in order to keep newly elected lawmakers at least 6 feet from one another. The ceremonies, which were closed to the general public and would ordinarily have taken place in the State House, cost just over $145,000.

That unbudgeted cost included the setup and rental of the arena from the city of Augusta at $4,025 a day, plus $92,467 for computer tablets needed to carry out paperless voting. Other costs included three days of lunches for the 186 lawmakers and their staff at nearly $5,000, and audiovisual and other technology expenses for connecting to the Legislature’s live online video and audio streams, used to enable the public to observe the proceedings.

While large chunks of the recent expense are one-time technology costs that may reduce the use of paper at the State House in the future, the daily rental costs remain.

The Legislature has no standing contract for the space, but the civic center’s director, Earl Kingsbury, said he has left the auditorium, which can seat 6,000 people, set up for lawmakers’ return. He said he can’t use the space otherwise, as public gatherings are capped at 50 people under an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills to curb virus transmission. As of Sunday, COVID-19 had claimed 257 Maine lives, and 15,923 cases have been reported.

Kingsbury said the civic center is operating in the red because of the pandemic, and income from rentals to the Legislature will help keep a bad situation from getting even worse.


The arena will charge the state $4,025 for each day lawmakers use it going forward. In the first session of the previous Legislature, lawmakers held floor sessions in the State House on 57 days. If they hold sessions on 57 days during the upcoming session, the cost to taxpayers will be about $229,000.

The federal government has provided more than $7.4 billion in coronavirus relief funding to Maine and its residents, including $2.8 billion under the CARES Act. However, none of the federal COVID-19 funding administered by the state was authorized for legislative costs.

Lawmakers will likely have to tap contingency funds in the Legislature’s annual budget, which runs around $30 million, to cover the unbudgeted expenses associated with using the civic center. Expenses for last year may have been reduced somewhat when the Legislature adjourned in March, earlier than expected, because of the pandemic.

Kelsey Goldsmith, communications director for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said state government will save $245,000 on electricity and heating fuel in the fiscal year that ends on June 30 because state employees are working from home and not in state buildings. But she also pointed out that state tax revenues are declining sharply because of the pandemic.

“With the reduction in revenue and the future of federal stimulus unclear, state government will face difficult choices as it works to maintain a balanced budget,” she said in a written statement.

Rep. Ryan M. Fecteau, D-Biddeford, right, is sworn in as speaker of the House by Clerk of House Robert B. Hunt on Dec. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, have said they plan to cut back on the time lawmakers must meet as a full body to increase efficiency, save money and limit the exposure of lawmakers and staff to the virus.


“The Legislature has a critical role to play when it comes to addressing the needs of Mainers amidst COVID-19,” Fecteau said. “Our people and our businesses have adapted with incredible patience and faced an unprecedented challenge. I’m confident the Legislature can do the same.”

It’s not clear yet how public access will be accommodated in the Legislature’s new setting. No members of the public were allowed in the civic center when lawmakers were sworn in, but the technology installed for that ceremony will enable live-streaming of their activities.

Leadership has taken steps to streamline the process of preparing bills and assigning them to committees, which will save time and avoid bringing lawmakers together in floor sessions for what are largely administrative tasks.

However, Jackson and Fecteau have not limited the number of bill proposals lawmakers may offer, according to Jackson’s communications director, Christine Kirby. “President Jackson felt that limiting the number of bills lawmakers could submit would not be fair to the constituents they represent,” she said.

“While there will not be limits on days or bills, I think what you will see is a concerted effort to work efficiently and as safely as possible,” said Mary Erin Casale, a spokeswoman for Fecteau.

Casale and Kirby also both said the Legislature’s Office of the Revisor of Statutes, which helps lawmakers write their bills, would be working to streamline bills to avoid duplication or other overlap.


In 2018, the first session of the Legislature saw more than 2,400 bills submitted. Of that total, 1,845 were printed and, as is typical for any Legislature, about a third of those eventually became law.

Although some Republicans are agitating for the Legislature to start its work as soon as possible, until there are bills drafted there is little work to do and lawmakers will have until Dec. 18 to make their recommendations for bills.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said considering the situation with COVID-19 infection rates in Maine, he sees little hope the full Legislature will be able to meet anywhere other than the civic center.

“In order to work the bills we have got to make sure the public has access to us,” Timberlake said Friday. “I will fight tooth and nail for that.”

He said he believes Democrats want the same thing, but finding a reasonable way to allow that has not been figured out yet. “I don’t have the answer today, but we are going to have to figure it out and figure out where we are going. But as of today I don’t see how we can have (floor sessions) in the State House.”

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