The Maine Idea: A slender chance for Legislature’s return

This year may become known, among many other things, as the Legislative Session that Wasn’t. Since lawmakers confronted the coronavirus tidal wave and left town in March, the State House has been mostly empty – with no public access and precious little legislative activity.

This is more than a little odd. Almost every other state legislature, and all those in the Northeast, came back to finish their business, if any remained undone. Several addressed Black Lives Matter protests with policing reforms and other criminal justice bills; many patched budgets.

In Maine, despite strong Democratic control of House and Senate, as well as the governorship, there have been no session days. In June, Democratic leaders resumed committee meetings, and all bills were voted up or down, with 162 ready for floor action; since then, nothing.

Instead, the public has been treated to the kind of rhetorical salvos that have been a depressing part of the national discourse for decades. Republicans refused to vote on returning because they couldn’t limit the agenda; Democrats faulted the GOP because they had, in essence, taken the ball and gone home.

The exchanges neglected a basic fact of political life in Maine: Since lawmakers began meeting annually in the mid-1970s, they have been called back for more than 40 special sessions – only one of which was called by lawmakers themselves.

All the other times, the governor has issued a proclamation, though we rarely see repeated the stately language Ken Curtis employed in 1970, asking lawmakers “to consider and enact such measures as in their judgment will best promote the welfare of the State.”

Janet Mills has issued no such proclamations during her first two years as governor, and the interesting question is why. With the committees resuming their meetings, and the Augusta Civic Center deemed appropriate for physically distanced sessions, everything seemed pointed toward an August special session – then, silence.

The governor’s early statements, expressed hope that the session would be limited in scope; more recently, they simply said discussions with presiding officers “continue.”

Reconvening before the November election seems about as likely as Congress passing another major stimulus bill. Time has simply run out.

In Washington, Republicans don’t want to get involved in a bidding war with Democrats; Democrats, hopeful of full congressional control come January, would prefer to enact legislation more to their liking then, and get credit for it.

A similar dynamic exists in Augusta. House Speaker Sara Gideon has long since checked out, understandably focusing on her titanic battle – at least measured by money raised and spent – against incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Senate President Troy Jackson faces the familiar dilemma of having to play second fiddle to a governor of his own party.

No return this year, however, will only make things more difficult when the Legislature organizes in December, then reconvenes in January.

Will lawmakers resolve what appear to be several contests for leadership posts and constitutional officers through Zoom voting? Will the two chambers figure out how to reference bills and get the session going without physical meetings?

There’s still one more chance for a test run, to figure out how things will work next year, and salvage at least the non-monetary legislation that remains on the table, since deficits loom: a “lame duck” session.

In the 19th century, when at least five months, and often longer, elapsed from the date a new Congress was elected and then convened, “lame ducks” were the order of the day. Difficult issues were often more easily resolved when representatives knew they couldn’t be voted out of office based on the results.

This was hardly democratic; now that the turnaround time is much less and expectations for public decision-making have risen, post-election sessions are rare. Nonetheless, this may be time for one in Maine.

Rarely has the state seen the levels of routine partisanship that rose throughout the LePage administration and have continued unabated under Janet Mills. There’s a sense that Nov. 3 may begin to resolve many issues facing this nation and state, but that doesn’t help the Legislature out of its current pickle.

As small a chance as there might seem to be for such a session, tempers may have cooled with new realities apparent – even to those whose instincts were for combat right up to Election Day.

It’s been hard enough for everybody to navigate through the “fog of war” the pandemic has created. “Essential workers” have been at it through thick and thin, often at significant personal risk.

Maine’s elected leadership should do no less.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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