The Maine Legislature is starting to hold more frequent committee briefings to discuss the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and engage in more public oversight and collaboration with the administration of Gov. Janet Mills. After more than two months with only one such event, the growing schedule of public meetings is a very good step in the right direction.
Last week, the offices of Senate President Troy Jackson and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon released an outline for different committee meetings in the coming weeks. The newly announced meetings started last Friday in the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, where legislators heard from Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa and Mike Allen, the associate commissioner of tax policy.
It was an important update on what’s known — and remains unknown — about the revenue impacts of the coronavirus. Lawmakers heard that Maine could lose up to $525 million in revenue by mid-2021 because of the current economic slowdown. It’s a troubling number, but also isn’t the $1.2 billion projection that had been floated previously by Moody’s Analytics.
The committee discussion also touched on the need for the Legislature and administration to work together moving forward, with a clearly defined process, on issues like the distribution of more than a billion dollars in federal coronavirus aid throughout the state.
Rep. Drew Gattine, the committee’s House chair, said Friday that developing this process “has to be resolved quickly” to avoid a situation where “the fact that we haven’t figured out how we’re going to interact together becomes a barrier to that money getting out there.”
“I think that would be bad for the Legislature, and I think that would be bad for the administration,” Gattine continued. “We cannot be a roadblock. We have to figure out a way that we can work together quickly, to move that money quickly.”
Gattine is right. The Legislature needs to be part of the process, and can’t be a roadblock when the smart and speedy allocation of these funds can make such a significant difference for Maine people and municipalities. It’s also fair for Jackson and Gideon’s offices to highlight the roadblocks that the Legislature faces in trying to meet and operate safely during the pandemic.
The bipartisan law passed in March before the Legislature suspended session does not allow for completely remote hearings at the State House. A quorum of at least seven members still needs to be physically present. And as Jackson and Gideon’s offices pointed out to the BDN Wednesday, there is a long list of legal, constitutional and technical questions about conducting legislative business remotely — such as language in the Maine Constitution about lawmakers being “present” and concerns about internet access for members.
As those details continue to be worked through — and they should be — Jackson and Gideon’s offices point to the legislative briefings as part of the much-needed process for the Legislature and administration to work together.
“We are inviting commissioners to come to all of the meetings in the next few weeks,” Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby and Gideon spokesperson Mary-Erin Casale said jointly. “The administration’s involvement is a critical component towards the path ahead. Chairs will work with commissioners to provide input, give guidance and follow-up on COVID-19 policy and relief programs as a result of these briefings.”
The next meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday in the Labor and Housing Committee, and will include updates from Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman and the Maine State Housing Authority. And according to a draft agenda, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson is slated to join the Appropriations committee on Friday.
Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete outlined in a statement to the BDN the various ways the administration has sought to work with the Legislature during the pandemic, including speaking regularly with the presiding officers and Republican leadership, fielding hundreds of requests for information, providing weekly updates on the working being done in different departments, and forming an Economic Recovery Committee.
“Governor Mills respects the role of the Legislature and believes lawmakers are an important part of the State’s efforts to respond to the unprecedented challenges the coronavirus pandemic is creating statewide,” Crete said. “Her administration’s goal has always been, and continues to be, to listen to the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans alike, as much as possible amid a constantly changing and dangerous public health crisis.”
For now, we’re encouraged to see increased legislative hearings become an avenue for that discussion to happen publicly. As the state continues to grapple with the health and economic fallout of COVID-19, we also agree with several members of the Appropriations committee, including Republican Reps. Sawin Millett and Dennis Keschl, that additional legislative action may be needed. That would seem to mean finding a safe, practical and legal way to come back into session, either remotely or in person.