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For months, we’ve been calling for legislators to have a larger role in Maine’s COVID-19 response. Now, perhaps more than any other time during the pandemic, is their chance to demonstrate that they are capable of rising above the bitter politics of today to better position Maine for the challenges of tomorrow.
Last week’s legislative squabble over a poll question about whether to come back for a special session was unproductive, with Democratic and Republican leadership trading public barbs leading up to it and most Republicans ultimately declining to participate (there doesn’t even seem to be agreement across the aisle on what counts as poll participation).
It’s all too reminiscent of last year’s disappointing special session. The attacks and finger pointing have continued. Legislative leaders seem more interested in blaming each other for what happened last week than working toward a resolution this week.
Especially now, during a pandemic, Maine deserves — and needs — better.
Despite a clear breakdown of trust, it would be a big mistake for legislative leaders of either party to allow their political disagreements to get in the way of much needed work, particularly regarding the economic and state budgetary impacts related to the coronavirus. We’d hope, as naive as it may sound, that a global pandemic and a resulting recession would require putting pure political posturing and election year vitriol aside — even during an election year with staggering amounts of money and national attention.
As we said before the poll results were finalized, all members should have voted last week to move toward convening a special session in Augusta, provided that safety measures are in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Republicans have been repeatedly calling for legislators to reconvene (albeit to remove Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency proclamation and resulting emergency powers), and they basically had an opportunity to take yes for an answer.
But that was last week. There is at least some general bipartisan agreement on the need to address squarely COVID-19 issues like the allocation of federal coronavirus relief funds and the problems swirling around Maine’s unemployment system. And there is other ongoing work, like that of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, that we would argue rises to the level of an emergency and deserves to be addressed now. The question is how to make this week and future weeks more productive than the last.
Republican leaders have said they want a narrower special session with a clear timeline, citing concerns about safety and public access. They’ve also said that they “remain committed to finding an agreement that would allow us to address the many concerns of Maine’s citizens during this emergency.” They can start by more clearly defining and expanding the issues they are willing to tackle in a special session.
The offices of Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon say that the conversation is ongoing and that cooperation is possible. They now plan to have the work that is currently being done in individual committees guide what could come up in a special session, and say they don’t want leadership to be dictating which individual bills could be included.
They also said that roughly 75 percent of the votes to advance bills since lawmakers have returned to committee work this summer have been bipartisan. That work is encouraging, but it cannot preclude direct negotiations between leadership on how to move forward with a special session.
We can’t be the only ones who see an opportunity for both sides to compromise here and meet somewhere in the middle, both on the scope and length of such a session.
Democratic and Republican Leadership should be able to come together to establish a more defined picture for a potential special session. Rather than waiting on each other to come back to the table, they each can be proactive in trying to bridge the divide.
Have Republicans been moving the goalposts in the past few months? It sure seems that way to us. But ultimately Jackson and Gideon, as presiding officers, have greater power and greater responsibility in shaping where discussion goes from here. We believe it is particularly incumbent on them to come back to Republicans with more specifics about how long a special session would last and what it would cover, and for both sides to negotiate with the interests of their constituents — not their political party — in mind.
If there’s anyone who looks good in this current stalemate, it’s Rep. Scott Strom of Pittsfield, the lone Republican to vote last week to come back into session. While Strom generally agreed with the Republican push for a narrower session, he told the BDN that he cast his vote because lawmakers must return. That is the attitude that must win out from both Republicans and Democrats.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be back,” he said last week. His colleagues need to prove him right.