Democrats blocked a Republican effort Wednesday to rein in Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency powers roughly one year after lawmakers granted her sweeping authority to respond to the developing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a largely party-line vote, Democrats in the House opposed a Republican-drafted resolution to terminate Maine’s civil state of emergency on grounds that Mills had extended it repeatedly “without providing the Legislature with a sufficient scientific rationale or justification.”

The resolution failed on a 67-81 vote, with all Democrats opposed, all but one Republican in support and independent or unenrolled members split on the issue.

Initiated on March 15, 2020, just three days after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Maine, the civil state of emergency allowed Mills to quickly mobilize or shift state resources and tap into billions of dollars in federal relief funds. Mills has also used the emergency powers to restrict businesses, place limits on gatherings, mandate face coverings and impose testing and/or quarantine requirements on people traveling to Maine.

Republicans have been pushing since last spring to rein in Mills’ emergency powers and reassert legislative oversight. Yet Republicans also blocked attempts by Democratic legislative leaders to resume the 2020 session. While Republicans said they wanted to restrict any activity to COVID-related measures, Democrats widely viewed it as an attempt to damage former House Speaker Sara Gideon’s campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Lawmakers convened the 130th Legislature in December and have been holding largely virtual committee hearings since January. But Wednesday was only the second time that all lawmakers convened for floor sessions, which were held at the Augusta Civic Center to allow for more physical distancing.

Rep. Peter Lyford, the Eddington Republican who sponsored the resolution, said his proposal was not aimed at ending the state’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic “but is intended to begin a continuation.”

“It has been many months without real consultation between the chief executive and the legislative branch,” Lyford said. “Peoples’ lives have been impacted every day with no ability for their voices to be heard … the situation demands bipartisan action and legislative involvement.”

Republican speakers were much more tempered in their language Wednesday than some of the fiery rhetoric that has been used against Mills in the past. They urged Democrats to help them provide their constituents with a stronger voice on pandemic-related policies than they say has existed during the year-long emergency declaration.

“For several weeks now, we have been doing the public’s business with proposed bills and committee hearings,” said Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, the assistant House minority leader. “There is no longer a reason for the chief executive to have to act alone to implement new rules or regulations to deal with the pandemic. We are in session, we are here today assembled to do the people’s business.”

Governors across the country utilized emergency declarations to swiftly respond to the emerging pandemic last year, and many still retain them. In Maine, the governor is required to renew any civil state of emergency declaration every 30 days – which Mills has done 12 times to date – but the Legislature has the authority to terminate that state of emergency at any time.

Mills’ office has said the administration has frequently engaged legislative committees on use of federal COVID relief funds and has maintained “regular” contact with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Only one Democrat spoke in opposition to the measure, although every Democratic member voted against it.

Rep. Michelle Dunphy, an Old Town Democrat who serves as House majority leader, said the March 15 emergency declaration “diminish(es) not one word of our constitutional authority or our responsibility.” Instead, Dunphy said, the emergency powers allow the Mills administration “to continue to respond swiftly and nimbly to changing conditions as we overcome this terrible pandemic.”

“In order to properly beat this pandemic, we need the state of emergency to continue to ensure that we have the ability to act swiftly to get Mainers through the remainder of this public health crisis,” Dunphy said. “We are close to ending this chapter in our state’s history. But in order to put COVID-19 behind us and accelerate our economic recovery, we need continued access to federal aid and the executive branch’s ability to quickly distribute these resources.”


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