The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee rejected in a series of party-line votes Monday more than a dozen bills seeking to constrain Gov. Janet Mills’ executive authority during a civil state of emergency.

The bills are a response to complaints that ongoing COVID-19 restrictions ordered by the Democratic governor under a public health emergency are damaging livelihoods and violating citizens’ rights.

But the Legislature’s majority Democrats have largely supported the administration’s response to the pandemic while praising the governor for saving lives and saving the state’s economy.

The bills Monday, all sponsored by Republicans, were voted ought not to pass by majority Democrats on the committee during more than two hours of remote voting in a work session.

Among other things, the bills would have required that the Legislature approve extensions of civil emergency declarations. One of the rejected bills would have treated every business, with any number of workers, as an essential business and prohibited a governor from placing any restrictions on a business during an emergency.

Although Mills has presided over one of the longest continuing states of emergency in state history, it’s not the first time the Legislature has had a partisan falling-out over a governor’s use of a civil emergency declaration.

In 2013,  Democrats chaffed when former Republican Gov. Paul LePage declared a civil emergency after a federal government shutdown in October of that year. LePage said he acted to protect the state’s financial interests, drawing criticism from Democratic leaders at the Legislature.

Mills, who was the state’s attorney general at the time, called LePage’s decision a “diversionary tactic” and told the Press Herald in an interview, “I don’t know what the hell he is talking about.”

The five Democrats and one independent on the committee regularly banded together outvoting the five Republican members, 6-5. One other committee Democrat was absent for the entire meeting, while one other Democrat missed voting in the afternoon. Both will have until 12 p.m. on Wednesday to cast their votes on the bills, unlikely to change the outcome of Monday’s votes.

Mills’ orders during the pandemic have included a range of restrictions and mandates, including limiting the number of people at private and public gatherings, closing certain types of business or restricting their hours of operations, requiring facial coverings and physical distancing.

Many have balked at the restrictions, but Maine’s overall COVID-19 infection and death rates from the virus, which is largely transmitted from person to person by respiratory droplets, have remained among the lowest in the United States.

One of the bills rejected Monday proposed a constitutional amendment to require the Legislature to approve any renewal of a state of emergency by a majority vote. That bill would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to pass, and then voters would have to endorse it in a statewide referendum.

About half way through the voting Monday, Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, the ranking House Republican on the committee, said it was apparent Democrats were not going to vote to support any of measures.

“I recognize the pattern this is all going today,” Tuell said. “I would say if we are not going to amend the emergency powers ourselves, I think we should at least put it out to the voters and let the voters have a say on it and let the voters decide because there are a lot of people around the state, whether you agree or disagree where they are coming from, who legitimately need to have their voices heard.”

The votes come as Maine enters into its second year of a civil state of emergency that has been renewed by Mills every 30 days since March of 2020. There was limited debate among the committee members Monday as they took the bills up in a business-like fashion with little discord between members.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, the Senate chair of the committee, praised its members following the voting.

“Everybody on the committee deserves congratulations because I think we handle a lot of delicate issues in a civil way and a logical way as best we could,” Baldacci said. “I know we don’t agree always but we are doing it in a civil and respectful way of each other.”

The full Legislature will still get a chance to vote on the bills later this year but they have an unlikely chance passing in a Legislature where Democrats hold 80 seats in the 151-seat House and 22 seats in the 35-seat state Senate.

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