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

As the gears of the Maine Legislature prepare to grind fully back to action in January, lawmakers from both parties agree on some priorities, the biggest of which is helping families and businesses survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But minority Republicans and majority Democrats are like to diverge considerably on how that should be accomplished.

Lawmakers had until the end of the day Friday to submit their proposals for legislation they want considered in 2021, but the final language on between 1,000 and 1,200 bills, as well as scheduled public hearings on them, could still be weeks away.

The biggest order of business, as always, is approving a two-year state budget by the end of June in order to avoid a state government shutdown. Those negotiations are likely to be more difficult than normal as the state’s tax revenues have taken a hit from a COVID-restricted economy, although recent revenue reports have not been as dire as they were predicted to be at the start of the pandemic.

Many Republicans are agitating to roll back or ease restrictions put in place through executive order by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat. But they remain significantly outnumbered in the Legislature, where Democrats have a 22-13 advantage in the Senate and an 85-66 edge in the House.

Troy Jackson, president of the Maine Senate Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said beyond the budget, responding to COVID-19 will be the top order of business.

“The No. 1 priority is going to be to try and come up with a number of things that help workers and small business out with the COVID,” he said. “People have certainly been negatively affected by this in a wide range of ways, and I think it is incumbent on us to dig in and use whatever resources we have and put together a wide-ranging plan on helping.”

Jackson also said the pandemic has reinforced an ongoing problem for rural Maine: lack of widespread and reliable broadband internet connections. Jackson said Mainers should expect to see help from the Legislature in expanding access and Senate Republicans share that priority, according to Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, the minority leader.

“How do you get broadband to rural Maine?” Timberlake asked. “And we need to do it efficiently and affordably.”

Timberlake said for Republicans that means looking at a variety of technologies, but with less emphasis on what he calls “stringing a lot of wire.” He said options may include programs to expand broadband that’s delivered by low-orbit satellites or 5G cellular network expansions.

Timberlake also agreed with Jackson that the Legislature needs to help small businesses, many of them crushed by pandemic restrictions.

“We need support for small businesses and keeping people working,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner Joe Phelan/Staff Photographer

Timberlake said Senate Republicans also will push to be a bigger part of the process when it comes to the state’s COVID-19 response, which for the last nine months has largely been handled by Mills’ administration.

“We need to find a way to have the governor include us in the conversation,” he said. “We are not saying everything she does is wrong, but we at least need to have a seat at the table.”

Jackson said his caucus also plans to push bills requiring state government to look to Maine companies for contracting work before it goes out of state or out of the country as another way to protect and increase employment for Maine workers.

“I can take you all across the state and show you where we are using state taxpayer money and we are hiring out-of-state or out-0f-country people and can’t believe that people can’t get their arms around that,” Jackson said. “That, to me, should be a priority for all of us.”

Another bill he hopes to resurrect would be one that pays Maine farms to provide surplus food to local food pantries and food banks. Jackson calls the measure “Mainers feeding Mainers.”

Republicans are vowing only to support responses to the pandemic that do not raise taxes, Timberlake said.

“We are emphatic we are not going to raise taxes and we are not going to borrow ourselves to forgiveness,” he said.

Some Republicans, especially new House members, will also seek to resurrect measures that have repeatedly failed in the Legislature in the past or have been rejected by voters at the ballot box with overwhelming majorities. Among those will be an effort to end a new law that eliminated religious or philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines that will be required starting in 2021 for all school-age children. A people’s veto effort to repeal the law was overwhelming rejected by voters in March, with 74 percent of voters agreeing to keep the vaccine mandate.

Other Republican efforts likely to face an uphill climb include resurrected proposals to require photo identification at the polls for voters and attempts to repeal the state’s no-excuse absentee ballot law, among others.

While processing bills, holding hearings on them and then voting them up or down all will take up valuable time in the Legislature, the process also will be disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions. Still, Jackson said he supports allowing those conversations to take place.

“I like the process we have here in Maine,” he said. “I’ve been pretty strong in defending that. Everybody gets their opportunity and every bill gets a chance to be heard. Sometimes you don’t like the bill you are hearing, but that’s a fair system.”

House Democrats say their top priority is crafting legislation that will help in the COVID-19 recovery, particularly supporting the state’s heritage industries of fishing and farming. They also want to help public schools and town and city governments while implementing the findings of the Maine Climate Council and advancing legislation that supports clean energy.

Democrats also rallied around a set of bills that seek to address systemic racism in the state’s criminal justice system and will view all bills they advance through the lens of racial equity.

“Without a doubt, responding to COVID-19 and getting more support to families, businesses and communities is at the forefront of our agenda as House Democrats,” House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, said. “We will also continue to fight for the things that Mainers need most, whether faced with a pandemic or not – affordable health care, access to safe housing and nutritious food, support for our schools and reduced property taxes, to name a few.”

Dunphy said House Democrats intend to listen to their constituents so they know the Legislature is “committed to setting up a future where they can thrive.”

John Bott, a spokesman for House Republicans, said members of that caucus also plan to push for more say in how state government responds to the pandemic. They also want at least a debate over curtailing the executive powers Mills has used during an ongoing civil state of emergency to place restrictions on businesses and individuals aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

“We have many ideas on how this might be done to have less pain for people without compromising health and safety,” Bott said.

From increased rates of domestic violence, to overdose deaths to suicides, Bott said Maine lives were being lost beyond COVID-19 and because of the restrictions.

“Removing the civil state of emergency order is the beginning to this discussion, it’s not the end,” he said.


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