The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature could return to the State House as soon as August for a high-stakes special session colored by the coronavirus and the 2020 election, though doing so would come with myriad logistical hurdles.
The target date was mentioned by Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, during a Tuesday meeting of the Legislature’s budget panel. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said while August and later times are being considered, “nothing has been finalized.”
Lawmakers adjourned abruptly in mid-March after the first cases of the virus were confirmed in the state. Just before leaving Augusta, they passed spending and response bills while leaving sweeping power to Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, to manage the state’s response under those laws and emergency authority.
The Legislature can only return if Mills calls them back or if they vote to come back. A call for the latter has been steadily growing among Republicans who have been frustrated by Mills’ handling of the pandemic. While Maine has had the seventh-fewest cases per capita, Republicans have opposed economic restrictions that continue to lift while some Democrats have more lightly criticized how those policies have been developed and communicated.
Legislative committees whose policy areas are particularly hard-hit by the virus have been meeting in recent weeks for what have essentially amounted to listening sessions. Republicans have pressed for a return in recent weeks in part because they want to strip Mills of her emergency powers. That is unlikely to happen in the Democratic-led Legislature.
Pressure is also growing as the state faces down a potential budget shortfall next year. The state has projected a $525 million shortfall through mid-2021 while disputing a $1.2 billion projection from Moody’s Analytics issued in April.
Members of the budget committee have been meeting with Mills on how the group could play a larger role in the disbursement of federal relief monies, but no agreement has been reached yet, said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the co-chair of the panel.
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a former budget commissioner, said during the meeting that a forthcoming revision of the state’s revenue forecast may necessitate the balancing of the budget. If they do not return, lawmakers could be “chastised by the electorate” because we “left everything up to the governor,” he said.
There are other political considerations as well. Gideon is the frontrunner in a three-way July 14 primary for the right to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. The incumbent’s campaign has hit the House speaker for “inaction” on the virus while the Legislature is adjourned, though legislative leaders of both parties made the decision to adjourn in March.
One of the biggest barriers to reconvening is how to maintain social distancing recommendations of staying 6 feet apart from others in indoor settings. While hearings have been conducted virtually, Maine law requires the two chambers to convene at the State House. Public hearings on bills could also be difficult.
Only 10 legislatures have reconvened since the pandemic began, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In New Hampshire, the country’s biggest legislative body has met at the University of New Hampshire’s ice hockey area, with lawmakers spaced out.