State Rep. Chris Johansen, R- Monticello, wears a face shield as he takes the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec 2, 2020. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Some Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives said Wednesday they would continue to not wear masks in the State House in violation of building rules when lawmakers return next week.

It promises a standoff with Democratic leaders including House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who stripped seven members of their committee assignments and replaced them with Democrats after they were videotaped entering the building without masks on Monday. It would complicate a busy slate of action in the Legislature as it races to alter and pass three crucial spending proposals from Gov. Janet Mills and a number of controversial bills.

The mask protest violated rules put into place by the Democratic-led panel of leading lawmakers that administers the Legislature. It voted last week along party lines to maintain a mask mandate in the State House even after Mills repealed her mandate for vaccinated people in most public indoor spaces. That took effect statewide on Monday.

The seven members — led by Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn — defied that rule on Monday and entered the building after a brief discussion with legislative staff and Capitol Police. Republicans have called the decision an overreach. Committees typically do not change from year to year, and it is unclear if Fecteau will review those unilateral assignment changes.

It is also unclear what consequences await members who vow to return maskless next week, a serious challenge to Fecteau and legislative rules. House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, and Assistant House Minority Leader Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, both said last Thursday they did not want to wear masks. Stetkis reiterated his stance on Wednesday and accused Fecteau of dodging questions about what consequences he and others could expect next week.

“There’s no other logical and commonsense reason for this other than a political power grab,” Stetkis said.

Libby said she is “not interested in walking back” her decision to not wear a mask when the Legislature returns next week. She has set up a fundraising page urging donors to help her “defend” her committee seat. The other members who protested were Reps. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, Sherman Hutchins, R-Penobscot, Chris Johansen, R-Monticello, Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, and John Andrews, L-Paris.

Johansen said he would not be wearing a mask and was exploring whether legal action could be taken against Fecteau to prevent him from forcing the mask mandate. Other members who were filmed on Friday did not return requests for comment.

“This is not a private business, this is the state’s Legislature,” Johansen said.

Thorne said he “does not agree” with the mandate but would not say whether he would wear a mask next week. Andrews declined to comment beyond that, only saying he would be at the State House and would “see how this all plays out.”

Libby’s page asserts that House Democrats may try to expel her when she returns next week, but no Democratic leader has actually said that, both Libby and a Fecteau spokesperson said. But Libby said she knows of no other method of punishment for members aside from expulsion or censure. Both would require a two-thirds vote of the House under the Maine Constitution.

Reprimands are rare in the House. Rep. John Michael, I-Auburn, was the first lawmaker in Maine House history to be censured after he shouted at two colleagues in 2001, according to media reports at the time. In 2017, former House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, removed Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, from two committees after a social media rant against then-President Donald Trump. An effort to expel him failed.

It is not clear what Democratic leaders will do next. The Legislative Council meets on Thursday.

Clarification: Rep. Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, did not say whether or not he would wear a mask when lawmakers return to the State House last week.

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