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Losing a loved one is bad enough. When the husband of a woman from New Sweden died at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, her grief was only made worse by the inability to make proper burial arrangements. In a last-ditch effort, the funeral home director called me and we came up with a way to commemorate this man’s life in a way that felt right and give his wife closure.
The COVID-19 pandemic is like nothing our state and even our country has seen before, or at least in the past century. But the way we respond to a crisis isn’t new. As Mainers, when challenges arise and the obstacles seem insurmountable, we don’t back away. We roll up our sleeves, get folks around a table and work together to forge a path ahead. In the coming weeks, that’s exactly what the Legislature will do.
Beginning with the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs meeting last week, Maine lawmakers will begin holding a series of committee meetings so elected officials, members of the administration and experts can survey the challenges, ask questions, get answers and solve problems.
The most important part of serving in the Legislature is representing the experiences, concerns and interests of my constituents. Over the past two months, I’ve spent every day on the phone with constituents listening to their stories and working to solve problems. I recently spoke to a high school student who wasn’t going to get a cap and gown due to an outstanding lunch bill. Thankfully, we were able to work with the school to come up with a solution.
The stories I’ve heard are heartbreaking. Hard working parents are out of work trying to navigate the unemployment system, put food on the table and care for their kids. Small-business owners are desperately trying to keep the business they’ve poured their heart and soul into alive while trying to keep themselves, their families and employees safe. Maine seniors who live on their own are worried about going to the grocery store, while seniors in long-term care facilities miss visits from their family members. We need to do something.
By holding committee meetings we can elevate the voices of our constituents, bring more people to the table, raise key issues and identify solutions, without the fanfare and risks of reconvening the entire Legislature until it’s safe and necessary.
Last week, the Mills administration made last-minute changes to when restaurants in parts of the state could resume dining room service. While this was the right decision for public health, it has cost restaurant owners substantially. It didn’t have to be this way. It’s a perfect example of what happens when stakeholders aren’t included in the discussion.
On Friday, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee spent a lot of time discussing the $1.25 billion in federal funding Maine received through the CARES Act. Although these funds are a welcome relief, Maine hasn’t spent them yet and people are desperate. Sitting on these funds is a disservice to Maine people.
Sen. Cathy Breen and her colleagues on the budget committee have proposed using some of these funds to purchase food from restaurants for hunger relief programs. Over the weekend, the governor announced that the Department of Corrections would purchase food from restaurants affected by the change in reopening date. It just goes to show that when we bring folks together, we come up with commonsense solutions.
This week the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee will meet, picking up where they left off with Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. The conversation will also focus on the health and safety of our frontline workers.
Health care workers make up a large number of COVID-19 cases in Maine and across the country. These are the people who are running towards the crisis, not away from it. We need to make sure they have what they need to do their job. You wouldn’t send a fireman into a burning building without proper equipment. The same should be true for our health care workers.
At the end of the day, Mainers are stronger when we navigate challenges together. These committee meetings are an essential part of that process and making sure more Mainers have a seat at the table when we talk about reopening our state, returning to life as we know it.
Maine people are counting on lawmakers to listen, learn and take action. It’s why I’ll always be there to answer the call whether it’s to help someone lay their husband to rest, to get first responders the benefits they deserve, or to ensure hunger doesn’t stand in the way of anyone’s graduation.
Troy Jackson of Allagash is the president of the Maine Senate.