COVID-challenged Legislature soldiers on



The 130th Maine Legislature can’t catch a break. Holding infrequent in-person sessions in the spacious Augusta Civic Center instead of the much smaller chambers at the Statehouse, the Legislature is once again on hold after two legislators reportedly tested positive for COVID. Barring additional cases, the Legislature will resume the week of May 17.

The Legislature has its very own calendar, quite unrelated to real time. It works on the premise that if legislators are not in session, time is not passing. Of course, time is passing, and plenty of work is being done between what are called “legislative days.”

The House of Representatives has had just five legislative days this session. The first was Dec. 2, 2020, when the newly elected Legislature convened to do its organizational business. That includes the representatives taking their oath of office, election of a speaker of the House, a clerk of the House, a sergeant-of-arms and their assistants and other chamber staff, adoption of the rules for the session and a few other details, including the compensation of the members.

All of this is preordained in that the majority party has sorted out who will fill these roles prior to convening. Then it’s just a matter of taking the votes. Most often the minority party goes along, as it is futile to object. It may be the one note of collegiality before the work of the session gets underway.

Since then, the House has met three times in March and once in April. That’s one day more than the Senate, which has met just four times. For both chambers, that means enormous calendars with hundreds of items being shoveled through the process. Normally at this time of year the chambers would be in session four or five days a week, maybe twice a day toward the very end.

It takes all kinds of machinations to get through the workload. The usual two weeks’ notice for public hearings has been abandoned. Some bills have been sent to work session without a hearing and summarily killed in committee, more than a little frustrating for citizens who have taken the trouble to submit testimony.

Do not think for a moment that the pandemic has caused the Legislature to pare back the work and focus on the essential. Nope. At the last meeting of the Senate on the 11th of March, 45 legislative sentiments were passed recognizing birthdays, retirements, Eagle Scouts, athletes, veterans and businesses.

A Joint Resolution to Congress was proposed to establish congressional term limits. Another Joint Resolution proposed “fiscal restraints” on the federal government and limits to federal “power and jurisdiction.” U.S. Rep. John Lewis was honored. The month of March was declared American Red Cross Month and also Social Work Month. Seventeen deaths were commemorated.

A giant mass of bills, 78 pages of them on the Senate calendar, were referred to various policy committees. The committees are working under significant constraints, doing their best to protect members, lobbyists and interested citizens while allowing full participation in the process. 

A blessedly easy-to-navigate electronic system is in place for submitting testimony to public hearings. There are adaptations for those who wish to appear in person. Still, when the normal steady flow of bills throughout the session turns into three or four massive dumps of legislative proposals at once, it is hard to manage. Really, really hard.

What will be the result? Will more bills get killed off? Or carried over to next year when one can hope it will be normal days again? Will the constraints of this session spell the end of the dreaded concept draft? 

Concept drafts, the subject of a previous rant in this space, give only the merest suggestion of a legislative proposal, leaving the work of developing a bill to a committee, a committee that often has no stake in the subject matter and no desire to take on additional work. These bills are essentially orphans, crying in the wilderness for someone to take them in and give them life.

Overwhelmed with torrents of bills coming through in great clumps, the policy committees do not have the time nor the heart to take on the task of writing a bill for sponsors who gave very little indication of what they hoped to accomplish.

None of this is to suggest that the Legislature is to be faulted. No one saw this coming, no one had experience to fall back on, no one had ever tried to comply with requirements for public access under these circumstances. The Legislature has done its best during the pandemic, but the quality of legislation passed may well suffer as a result. The Legislature will live to fight another day. Bills that can’t be carefully worked should be killed.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.

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