AUGUSTA, Maine — The coronavirus pandemic will directly influence the legislative conversation in the State House this session.
Dozens of the 1,690 bills submitted to the revisor’s office deal directly with the pandemic, according to an analysis of preliminary titles released last week. That number of bills — not exactly uncommon during a regular session — promises to make for a long session already complicated by the virus.
The bills run the gamut from addressing education and health care issues caused by the pandemic to altering tax usage and giving the Legislature more control during emergency situations. Several address racial justice and inequality issues brought to the forefront by the pandemic and protests against police brutality throughout the summer.
A CLOSER LOOK AT LEGISLATIVE REQUESTS
The range of bills show just how much the pandemic has dominated the conversation in Maine, and underscores where the political fights could be. Varying efforts to rein in Gov. Janet Mills’ powers will likely prove to be contentious as the conversation around how to best manage the pandemic becomes more partisan.
There are 11 bills related directly to the governor’s powers during states of emergency, something legislative Republicans have been pushing for since the spring, not after the Legislature unanimously gave Mills major control over the pandemic in March.
Those titles range from an effort to hem the governor’s powers in a state of emergency to various proposals to require legislative involvement to keep a crisis state ongoing. Several are from Republican leadership, who have framed those bills as a way to give lawmakers more of a direct say in how the pandemic is managed.
Those bills may face a hard climb with majority-Democratic leadership affirming their support for Mills’ handling of the pandemic last week. But GOP members are not the only lawmakers looking for more pandemic oversight. A measure from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee’s co-chair, Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, looks to give the legislative branch more control over COVID relief funds, something budget members were denied this year.
A set of bills aims to alleviate the pain businesses and Mainers have faced during the pandemic as social distancing restrictions dragged down spending that directly fuels state revenues. Measures could affect the state and municipalities’ ability to raise revenue when shortfalls are already anticipated.
State Rep. Jon Connor, R-Lewiston, is proposing to suspend meals and lodging taxes until 12 months after the civil emergency ends. Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, submitted a bill to place a moratorium on property revaluations during a state of emergency.
Education-related bills look to boost online learning and survey the mental health of students during the pandemic. A measure from state Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, would allow students to stay in their current grade if their education was adversely affected, while state Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, wants to expand the definition of “education disruption” to include periods of time when students are forced to learn remotely for more than two weeks.
Several measures are aimed at inequalities exacerbated by the virus. One measure from state Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, would prohibit evictions until three months after the emergency declaration ends. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, looks to establish a COVID patients’ bill of rights. House Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, looks to address the health disparities Black and people of color face. Those populations are disproportionately affected by the virus in Maine, despite the state being among the whitest in the country.