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We’ll get through this together.
That’s something a lot of people, including us, have been saying about the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a message Gov. Janet Mills has emphasized repeatedly as she leads Maine through a global crisis that seemed unimaginable just months ago.
Getting through this together means listening and engaging with others — especially those with different experiences and differing views. It means leveraging the expertise of a wide range of Mainers and channeling it toward a common goal of reopening our economy safely. And doing all of that in a way that brings members of the public along in an ongoing conversation.
In terms of state government, that surely requires increased, more transparent engagement with the Legislature from the Mills administration. It also requires additional oversight from the legislative branch to ensure that the administration’s efforts remain focused and responsive to the people of Maine. Both can and should happen without following legislative Republicans’ call in a letter late last week to remove Mills’ emergency powers and “establish a new process working with the Governor that involves all parties to better serve Maine.”
We agree there’s a need for better and more clearly-defined dialogue. But as Senate President Troy Jackson has pointed out, ending the governor’s emergency proclamation could complicate federal aid for the state as well as the ability to procure much-needed supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies.
It’s not a good time for Maine to ditch its emergency proclamation and Mills’ emergency powers, or for the Legislature to come back into session solely to attempt to do that. But the Legislature should continue exploring ways to safely resume work, including oversight of the state’s ongoing response to the virus.
Initial briefings that the Mills administration held for the full Legislature and party caucus stopped after open meeting law concerns were raised by members of the Maine media. Committee oversight and the creation of a formal reopening task force could help fill that apparent void.
In a statement Wednesday, House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham reiterated her caucus’ call for the Legislature to return for “clear and express purpose of removing the Governor’s emergency powers.” She said there could be initial, remote discussions between the administration and Legislature about “what parts of the Governor’s authority should stay in place” and what actions are needed.
“As our letter says, we want to work collaboratively with the Governor and our counterparts in the Legislature,” Dillingham continued. “This is an effort to broaden the scope of input on how to safely reopen Maine.”
Again, we disagree on removing the emergency powers right now. But we hope that a spirit of collaboration will win out on both sides of the aisle.
Mills’ announcement on Wednesday of an Economic Recovery Committee of business leaders, economic experts, municipal officials, tribal representatives, union officials, lawmakers from both parties and others, is a step in the right direction. But with what appears to be a more long term recovery focus (the group’s first report is not due until July), we continue to see a need for the creation of a collaborative group focused squarely on the more immediate process of safely reopening Maine’s economy. This would build on the administration’s existing outreach to the business community.
As House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Jackson wrote to the governor in separate letters this week, a task force or advisory council focused on safely reopening Maine’s economy could combine expertise from a variety of sources including the administration, legislators, members of the business community, public health officials, and labor representatives. Other states have done it, and Maine can too.
The Legislature also doesn’t have to be on the sidelines. On Wednesday, the Labor and Housing Committee held a briefing with Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, the first of its kind during this pandemic, to discuss the confusion and delay that has surrounded the state’s rollout of a new unemployment program for self-employed workers.
There absolutely needs to be more of this type of oversight moving forward. Legislative leaders should be working together to identify more ways that committees can ask questions and provide feedback about the administration’s ongoing efforts to manage this emergency, and to start having public conversations about the massive budgetary implications of the pandemic.
We commended the Legislature for doing the responsible thing in March to suspend session after quickly reaching bipartisan agreement on a spending plan and coronavirus response bill. But it’s time to more actively (and safely) get back in the game in a way that helps constituents have a clearer understanding of the ongoing public health crisis, how and when different parts of the Maine economy are reopening, and more confidence that the right questions are being asked and answered.
In the absence of more cohesive, public-facing engagement in Augusta thus far, a vocal minority of protestors have played an outsized role in shaping the debate about reopening Maine’s economy. Maine doesn’t need liberation, but it does need more transparent deliberation from its leaders.
Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town