AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democrats who run the Maine Legislature began polling members Tuesday on an August return to Augusta, but minority Republicans could hold it up while looking to establish narrower terms for a charged session in an election year.
Legislative leaders abruptly ended the 2020 session in mid-March after hastily passing spending and coronavirus response bills as the state became one of the last to see its first recorded virus cases. Gov. Janet Mills was given sweeping power to manage the response by executive order.
Maine has seemed to manage the virus well as daily cases continue to rise in the rest of the country. Along with New Hampshire, it is one of two states where new cases are decreasing and Maine has the sixth-lowest number of per capita cases throughout the pandemic, according to The New York Times. Only eight new cases were recorded on Tuesday as testing increases.
But Republicans have chafed at many of Mills’ economic restrictions that sparked conservative protests early in the pandemic. The party’s legislative leaders want to strip Mills of her emergency power. Democrats chafed at those demands, though some have criticized how restrictions were implemented geographically and communicated to the public.
On Tuesday, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said they were polling legislators on whether they want to return in August for a session at the Augusta Civic Center to better accommodate distancing measures.
In a statement, Jackson said low case counts put lawmakers “in a good position to finish our work.” Gideon is one of three Democrats running on Tuesday for the nomination to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican whose campaign has criticized the speaker for the Legislature’s limited role in state policy around the virus.
Members of the Legislature have two days to respond to the poll. To come back in this way, majorities of Democratic and Republican lawmakers must agree to return. The Democratic governor can also call the Legislature back at any time. Jackson and Gideon, however, have not set a target timeframe for a session.
Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said on Tuesday that he had not gotten answers from the top Democrats on how long a session would be and what categories of legislation will be considered.
Republicans would like a session of only a few days limited to emergency or virus-related bills, he said. Dow said he wanted to see those suggestions taken seriously before voting and questioned whether it was safe to come back for an undefined period. When asked how he would vote, he referred to an adage that he said Waldoboro voters often use in local elections.
“When in doubt, vote no,” Dow said, later adding that he reserved the right to change his answer after talking to his Republican caucus.
Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby shot back by referring to previous Republican calls to reconvene, saying her boss expects the minority party to agree to come back but that there is no firm plan on what would happen if they do not.
“If they don’t, then we’ll go from there but it’s too early to speculate,” she said.