The 130th Maine Legislature convened on Jan. 5 to begin the second regular session. With the pandemic dragging on, it was a fleeting moment of togetherness. Just two days are scheduled for in-person sessions in January. The first is behind us, the other is Jan. 26. Legislators will now shift to committee work from home via the magic of electronics for the foreseeable future.
Majority leadership provided the framework for the operation of the Legislature in the time of COVID, including electronic committee meetings and a mask mandate in public spaces in government buildings. The minority party was not pleased.
Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham was the Republican spokesperson for the opposition. Faulkingham, a level-headed legislator with potential leadership ability, gave the weekly Republican radio address for his party on Jan. 7 (mehousegop.org). It was a thoughtful presentation of the rationale for in-person legislating, a good foundation for a useful discussion of the pros and cons rather than another blast of tension-inducing rhetoric.
Conducting committee work electronically is excruciating, anathema to a political culture that thrives on interpersonal contact. The hum of the hive is the life force of a legislature. Now legislators are doomed to sit in front of screens hour after hour, business on top, loungewear on the bottom, struggling to pay attention while cries of “You’re on mute!” echo incessantly on the screen.
Wednesday’s session was mostly routine. A “committee of 10” from the House of Representatives was sent to “wait upon Her Excellency, Governor Janet T. Mills” and “inform her that a quorum of the House of Representatives is assembled in the Hall of the House for the consideration of such business as may come before the House.”
The Maine Senate was also officially notified that the House was in session and ready to rumble. The requisite response from the upper body is: “The chair hears the message and thanks the messenger,” the legislative equivalent of “Yeah, yeah.”
With the opening ceremonies out of the way, a deluge of bills was poured into the funnel and spilled out the bottom assigned to committees. Appointments were made. The resignations of two representatives were reported and a new one took her seat. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows certified that her department is the “legal custodian of the Great Seal of the State of Maine.” No one objected.
An official “Purebred Dog Day” was designated for May 1, 2022. It is “in celebration of purebred dogs and the many service and companion benefits they provide in Maine.” The Legislature attested that there is “currently no day set aside” to honor the purebred dog. What were we thinking?
Committees were “pleased to report that all business that was placed before [them]” in the previous session “has been completed.” There was no mention of the hundreds of bills that were carried over and now await further action. It will be as difficult to flog them through the process this year as it was last year, the Legislature still handicapped by COVID restrictions.
Some of those bills had fiscal notes and sit upon the special appropriations table, fingers crossed, hoping for funding. Others were referred for study over last summer. Still more were just unfinished business, the committees making a successful case for why they should live to fight another day.
Given the unusually large number of bills carried over, it was widely reported that leadership begged members not to submit a lot of new legislation. This seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Though the second year of a two-year session is meant to be for budget bills and emergencies only, what passes for an emergency is broadly defined. There is a large budget surplus, which can be harder to deal with than a lack of funds. The looming gubernatorial election in November 2022 is not going to make life any easier.
The Legislature’s website lists 330 bills that were screened for the session. The speaker of the House requested three; the Senate president 13. He was outdone by only one senator (John Baldacci of Bangor), who submitted 14.
Among Hancock County legislators, our three senators submitted seven bills, five of them from Sen. Louie Luchini, two from Sen. Marianne Moore and none from Sen. Kimberley Rosen. The eight Hancock County representatives submitted just 13 bills in total. Rep. Sherm Hutchins led with four; Reps. Kathy Downes, Meldon Carmichael and Sarah Pebworth submitted none.
At the close of the day, the assembled masses fled the scene to return home, take on committee work and await Jan. 26 or “the call of the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House” to reconvene in the chambers. Statutory adjournment is April 20. We wish them fair winds and a following sea.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.