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AUGUSTA, Maine — Many members of the Maine Legislature will soon be returning to Augusta for the first time since mid-March as they look to put their stamp on the state’s coronavirus response, but the business of lawmaking is not yet on the schedule.
Legislators have been relatively powerless since abruptly adjourning two months ago due to the encroaching coronavirus pandemic after granting sweeping powers to Gov. Janet Mills, who used them along with chief executives in all other states to issue orders that closed businesses and restricted gathering sizes in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.
Since then, the Democratic governor has begun allowing businesses to reopen, but as businesses have closed and the hospitality industry frets over what could be a lost summer season, minority Republicans have pushed a return to strip Mills of emergency powers.
Democratic presiding officers have turned that request aside, but they tentatively scheduled a slate of committee hearings over the next month that will start on Friday with a presentation from Mills’ budget commissioner. But with no return to full session in sight, lawmakers will only be able to use their meetings to ask questions and try to get answers for constituents.
“We want the public to know that we’re doing our jobs,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the education panel, one of the committees meeting in the coming weeks.
During the pandemic, lawmakers have been largely limited to performing constituent services, such as advising those who have had trouble with a backlogged unemployment system. Top state officials used to hold weekly meetings open to all lawmakers, but those were shut down after news organizations noted that some violated public access laws.
For Republicans, the return means little without additional action. Sen. Robert Foley, R-Wells, was one of many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle frustrated with Mills’ Wednesday announcement delaying the reopening of restaurants in three counties including York County — originally slated for next Monday — with Mills citing increasing hospitalizations.
Foley said you “can’t throw a penny without hitting a restaurant” in his typically tourist-heavy area and that many constituents bought food and hired staff to prepare for the opening. A state official indicated in a Monday email to Foley that the reopening was continuing as scheduled, then he found out about the abrupt change at the governor’s news conference.
“One of the roles we as legislators play is to explain why certain decisions are made and we’re not able to do that,” he said.
Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said the administration weighed case increases in southern Maine and Androscoggin County and made the decision to delay indoor dining on Tuesday, a day before the announcement.
While the governor “would like to have been able to provide more notice, she must also balance that with the need to try to take into account the most current public health data,” Crete said, adding that Mills and other officials regularly speak with legislative leaders and the administration has fielded hundreds of requests for information, suggestions and concerns.
In a statement, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said lawmakers are experts in their areas and that “they have a role to play in charting Maine’s path forward.” Their work will begin again with a Friday hearing on the economic downturn with Kirsten Figueroa, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
Her department will be managing a dire situation. Maine is one of the states expected to be heaviest hit by the slowdown because of its heavy reliance on the hospitality industry. A recent analysis by Moody’s Analytics found that it could lose $1 billion in revenue by mid-2021.
Other hearings expected afterward will be on the topics of labor and housing, public health, agriculture and education. Kornfield said she hopes to provide clarity for families who are trying to plan for the summer and fall without knowing how the Department of Education will handle the school year beyond what has been posted on the department’s website.
Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said while he generally supports the Mills administration’s response so far, he wants to check in on other facets of health — such as child welfare and substance abuse — that have been “crowded out” by the virus.
Even though he is not part of any committees set to meet, Foley said he plans to listen. He said he hopes lawmakers will not have to wait until the Legislature returns for them to be consulted.
“It’s imperative as the state makes decisions that legislators in those areas are consulted,” he said, “or at least given a heads up.”
Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase