Earlier this past week, we were very hopeful about a growing number of committee hearings being held in the Maine Legislature centered around the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That feeling of hope quickly turned to frustration.
We aren’t the only ones who are frustrated. Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, at the direction of Gov. Janet Mills, did not accept an invitation from the Labor and Housing Committee to update lawmakers on Maine’s unemployment system, which has faced unprecedented strain and delays for Maine people trying to access benefits.
Lawmakers, to put it mildly, were not pleased by the no-show Thursday morning. And they had good reason to be.
If these hearings are going to be a productive means of conducting oversight and keeping the public apprised and involved in the important decisions being made at the state level, there needs to be continued buy-in from the administration. And while Fortman did participate in a long, less than cordial unemployment briefing in early May, that doesn’t excuse her department or the administration as a whole from sustained, public engagement and information sharing on issues that impact the health and economic survival of many Mainers. She or someone from the Maine Department of Labor should have been there to answer questions Thursday and provide an update on this fluid, extremely consequential situation.
And as we have stressed previously, it’s critical that the administration and the Legislature work together in a publicly-accessible way that allows Maine people to understand and adapt to state action during the pandemic. Thursday’s labor committee briefing felt like a step backwards — not just because Fortman wasn’t there, but because of the political theater involved.
The situation essentially seems to have played out like this: Legislative leaders invited Fortman to appear before the committee; the Mills’ administration had been indicating to Senate President Troy Jackson and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon for some time that Fortman likely wouldn’t attend. Jackson and Gideon told this to the Labor and Housing Committee chairs while their offices pushed for the administration to reverse course, and this back and forth was not made clear to Republican leaders or the public ahead of time.
The end result was more unneeded confusion and outrage at a time when the state can little afford them. Maine people deserve better, from its governor and from its legislative leaders.
Importantly, this doesn’t have to derail things. Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson joined the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Friday for a discussion about the economic impact and response related to COVID-19. These conversations need to continue, just as the Legislature needs to continue working through the barriers of conducting business during the pandemic and eventually return to fuller operations, remotely or in person.
In a statement to the BDN Wednesday about working with the Legislature during the pandemic, before frustrations escalated the next day, a Mills spokesperson repeatedly referenced the governor’s desire to listen to lawmakers and to respond to questions. This process needs to involve more than just listening and responding — it requires an active back and forth that brings the public along in the conversation. It also requires focused, productive fact-finding from the Legislature.
We don’t expect everyone in Augusta to get along all the time. That’s frankly not how good policy is made. But we’re worried that the battles happening now are more about personalities and political posturing, and less about the people of Maine. Department heads need to be showing up to these meetings, and legislators need to focus on oversight and not scoring political points (a fine line even in normal times, to be sure).
The unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 virus were guaranteed to complicate how the Legislature and administration work together. But it doesn’t have to be this messy.