The state Senate voted Thursday to reject a Republican-backed effort to terminate Maine’s state of emergency and assert more legislative control over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike during a vote Wednesday in the Maine House, Senate Republicans managed to pick up a few Democratic colleagues in their campaign to rein in Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency powers during the pandemic. But the outcome was the same as the Democratic majority defeated the measure 19-15 a day after it died in the House on a vote of 81-67.

Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Oxford, speaks during debate on a measure to end the governor’s emergency powers during a legislative session Thursday at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

A group of Maine residents, meanwhile, filed the latest federal lawsuit against Mills seeking to end an emergency declaration that will turn one year old on Monday.

“The emergency mandates have stripped the people of this state of their fundamental rights and dignity. Our daily lives are now directly and comprehensively micromanaged by the summary edicts of executive officers,” reads the lawsuit filed by a group called Maine Stands Up.

Republicans have been pushing since last spring to rein in Mills’ emergency powers, which both parties had granted to the governor last March as COVID-19 cases began appearing in the state. The civil state of emergency declared by Mills on March 15, 2020, allows her to quickly mobilize or shift state resources and tap into billions of dollars in federal relief funds.

Mills has also imposed a host of public health measures, including restrictions on businesses, face covering mandates, testing and/or quarantine requirements on travelers to Maine and gathering limits that extended into churches or religious settings. She has done much of that unilaterally, as allowed under the emergency powers granted to the governor.


But Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said the resolution “is about restoring the functioning of our democracy.”

“A central tenet of our fragile democracy is separation of powers,” Bennett said. “The Legislature has a unique role in being the ears, the eyes and the voice of the people. And I think we all will agree that there has been pernicious degradations of our democratic traditions over these past months and, indeed, over these past few years.”

Republicans also insisted that the current emergency declaration was no longer necessary to tap into federal COVID-19 relief funds.

While many Democratic lawmakers have lamented being sidelined during the pandemic, the vast majority of members sided with their leadership and the Democratic governor in preserving the existing state of emergency. And several Democrats pointed to Republicans’ refusal to reconvene the Legislature last year and this week’s partisan fighting over a supplemental budget as evidence why Mills still needs the ability to quickly respond to the pandemic.

“We are great at making long-term policy,” Democratic Sen. Mark Lawrence of Eliot said in response to Bennett. “But if my good friend from Oxford thinks that he can get two-thirds of the Senate to agree upon something, and two-thirds of the House to agree upon something, and act within a day or even two days, i would suggest that he is living in a different world than I’m living in.”

Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, said there was “not a chance” that both chambers of the Legislature could quickly reach the two-thirds consensus needed to pass emergency measures to deal with complex and fast-moving issues of the pandemic.


“We need to continue doing our work as legislators and we need to continue letting the governor deal with one of the biggest emergencies our state has ever faced,” Sanborn said.

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said “the governor is not interested in making the pandemic political.

“She is focused solely on saving the lives and livelihoods of Maine people,” Crete said in a statement. “Her administration will continue to balance public health and economic health within the bounds of her Constitutional authority and in a strictly non-partisan and non-political fashion.

A Republican member of the Maine House, Rep. Heidi Sampson of Alfred, was among four named individuals on the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

In addition to challenging the governor’s emergency orders, the suit claims that COVID-19 case numbers and deaths have been inflated. It also says the virus is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu, which is demonstrably not true.

Mills already has won multiple lawsuits against plaintiffs making similar arguments.


A federal judge last summer dismissed a lawsuit by business owners who challenged the governor’s restrictions on their operations during the pandemic. One of the plaintiffs in that suit – Rick Savage, co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel – opened the brewpub in defiance of the governor’s orders, causing him to temporarily lose his state licenses.

Last spring, a federal judge denied a preliminary motion in a lawsuit brought by campground owners who sought to strike down Maine’s 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors.

And a church in Orrington lost its court bid last year to hold in-church religious services that would have violated restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey called the latest lawsuit “frivolous” and said his office would “vigorously defend” the governor and state officials.

“The fact that we were first made aware of this lawsuit by a publicist for the plaintiffs’ attorney leads us to question the real motives behind this,” Frey said in a statement. “Throughout this unprecedented public health crisis, the governor has acted well within her constitutional authority to take necessary actions to protect public health and save lives. In previous challenges, courts have consistently upheld her actions. Maine has benefitted from Governor Mills’s steady hand on the tiller, and the measures she has taken have led to Maine having some of the best public health metrics in the country.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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