Good morning from Augusta. Tonight is the second night of Hanukkah. Here’s your soundtrack.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “No one is immune,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday after newly elected state House Speaker Dick Hinch died a day earlier of the coronavirus. “It’s spreading in our community; it doesn’t affect the elderly, it affects everyone, everywhere, and we have to stay vigilant.” As cases surge nationwide, New Hampshire reported more than 800 new cases on Tuesday. Maine, with only a slightly smaller population, has sat around 400.
What we’re watching today
The new legislative session promises to be heavy on technology and pricey as lawmakers will often gather at the Augusta Civic Center. The new Legislature only spent one day together in the building, but cost estimates from Legislature’s administrative office show how much time, money and energy will go into the days when the coronavirus pandemic requires the House and Senate to meet on the north side of Augusta.
Doing business at the city-owned civic center has cost $53,000 so far for just a few days of legislative work. First, there was the time it took to set up — six days at a cost of $3,000. Then there were caucus meetings and the swearing-in itself. With each additional rental day costing $4,000, just being in the building cost the state more than $21,000.
Then there was equipment needed to make the show run. The office hired its broadcasting and event audio production through Digital Spirit Media. It rented large screens used to display rosters. Those collectively cost over $16,600, expenses Senate Secretary Darek Grant says will likely be recurring costs to the Legislature, as purchasing and maintaining them would not be worth it in the long run.
There are also odds and ends: technology needed to run bells telling you when a vote is being called, an ethernet cable used to broadcast the first day’s events in the State House where most staff are stationed and medical staff to screen entrants for virus symptoms.
Keen observers might have noted lawmakers casting votes on a tablet, part of a long-term effort to go paperless in the chamber. Those 200 tablets proved to be the most expensive element of the new session yet, coming in at $92,000. But Grant said those devices are critical to the Legislature’s ability to meet outside the State House, where votes are usually cast with a button.
All of this will shape the session to come. Legislative leaders are already wary of meeting in person as coronavirus cases surge. They will have to craft a budget hampered by a revenue shortfall that will surely make them unwilling to incur more costs than necessary.
Committees will most likely be conducting business in a spread-out fashion after the Legislature gave them the ability to cast votes electronically last week. Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, has indicated that full meetings of the Legislature will be much more comprehensive than previous sessions in order to limit time in the civic center.
The Maine politics top 3
—“Maine days away from 1st coronavirus vaccinations, but the process will take months,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “There are many moving parts to vaccine distribution. Health care providers will focus first on vaccinating first responders before the general population is vaccinated and the entire process will take months. Misinformation can muddy the water. Life will not return to normal immediately after vaccination.”
The first vaccine up for approval in the U.S. took a major step forward on Thursday, but the federal government must green-light it for wide distribution. A Pfizer vaccine touted as 95 percent effective was recommended for widespread use on Thursday by a panel of experts that advises the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is expected to heed that advice, but it may take a few days or a week to finalize it. After that is done, states are expected to get the first doses within days with more vaccines in the pipelines. In Maine, the first round is expected to be enough to immunize 12,675 people beginning as soon as next week.
— “It’s less and less clear how Mainers are catching COVID-19,” Charles Eichacker, BDN: “As community transmission leads to ever higher numbers of cases, it has had the secondary effect of swamping the detectives whose job is to investigate the source of each infection and identify people who have come in contact with people who tested positive. As a result, the state had a backlog of 4,000 new positive test results it still hadn’t fully sorted through at the start of this week.”
Small gatherings are largely blamed for the surge, though Maine does not collect a type of data that could shed light on that. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah has echoed top federal infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to point to small gatherings as the source of many new cases, pointing to trends observed by Maine case investigators. The state, however, has not quantified this. While states including Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont publicly track types of settings where people could have been exposed to the virus, Maine is among the many states that do not.
— “52 people say they have ‘no confidence’ in Maine mental health agency’s leader,” Callie Ferguson, BDN: “Fifty-two former employees, board members, current and past volunteers and community members sent a letter to the NAMI Maine board of directors last week to express their strong disapproval of the nonprofit’s leader, mounting pressure for the board to address allegations that Jenna Mehnert’s “abusive” management style has caused rampant turnover at the agency.”
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.
To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.