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It’s deja vu all over again.
For the second time in a matter of weeks, lawmakers in Augusta failed to reach an agreement on returning for a special session. Instead of continuing to attack each other in press releases, leaders in both parties should be taking a hard look in the mirror. In the middle of a pandemic, we’re still left wondering what it will take for Democratic and Republican legislative leadership to set partisanship aside and govern.
The Democratic presiding officers, Senate President Troy Jackson and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, once again initiated a poll asking if members of the Legislature favor returning for a special session in August at the Augusta Civic Center. Democrats supported the poll, and most Republicans either opposed or didn’t respond to the poll. There’s disagreement between the two sides about how members are supposed to participate in the poll, but the end result is undisputed: still no special session.
While Maine is facing a $1.4 billion shortfall over the next three years and continuing to deal with a global pandemic, our legislative leaders are bickering over the mechanics of a poll, and what counts as a response. Maine citizens deserve — and need — much better.
In a statement, Senate Republican leaders Dana Dow and Jeff Timberlake referenced Gov. Janet Mills’ current executive order that limits indoor gatherings to 50 people, arguing that convening a group of more than 180 legislators would be “telling Mainers that there are two kinds of people in our state; those who must suffer under government-imposed rules, and a privileged class of political elites for whom these rules do not apply.” But that gets things backwards.
Certainly it’s a privilege to serve in the Legislature. However, it’s a responsibility, not a privilege, to rise to the occasion and do the job their constituents elected them to do. The Legislature should take great care with proper safety precautions to avoid outbreaks that have been seen in other elected bodies, but in this case, it feels like Republicans are hiding behind public safety measures they have otherwise opposed.
The poll response from Republicans shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Democrats point to the fact that legislative committees have now voted out over 160 bills, almost half unanimously, as an outline for a special session. But Republicans were already clear about their opposition to that approach, so it’s hard to share Jackson’s feeling of being “absolutely floored” when essentially the same poll process led to the same result.
While the debate over these special session polls hasn’t changed much in the past few weeks, the dire budgetary reality of COVID-19 has gotten clearer. Following the dismal revenue forecast, Mills is calling for sweeping budget cuts. So, it would seem likely, and necessary, that a special session include more than just the bills currently passed by committees.
Importantly, and in this case thankfully, a legislative poll isn’t the only way to bring lawmakers back into session. The governor also has the constitutional authority to do so.
“The Governor has made no decision on whether or when to call a special session, but she continues to engage with Legislative leaders in a collaborative manner on the timing and focus of any special session,” Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said in a statement to the BDN on Friday.
Such collaboration and engagement is a key part of governing. We understand there is friction and a lack of trust among legislative leaders right now, but Maine citizens and businesses need action and negotiation from their elected representatives, not semantic battles and efforts to score political points.
Jackson has repeatedly talked about coming back into session to “finish the job.” Surely he means in terms of wrapping up the work done by this current Legislature, and that must happen. But we have a different, admittedly bleaker perspective. Given the scope and severity of issues stemming from the pandemic, the hard work and tough decisions in Augusta are just getting started.
If our legislators continue to trade press releases instead of focusing more on policy proposals, Maine is in trouble.