The machinery of the state Legislature is grinding into gear, with all the clanks and groans attendant after sitting idle for seven months. It adjourned in a pandemic rush last March, hurrying to get essential business done and leaving everything else for another day.
Republicans criticized House Speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon for not bringing legislators back in. When the Speaker tried, Republicans refused. Republicans said the Speaker did not communicate with them. The Speaker said she did.
Let us not be too quick to lay blame on either side. We know a lot more about the coronavirus now than we did when Augusta was scrambling to make decisions in March. Now, what we thought might be a brief disruption in life as we knew it is turning into an endless re-jiggering of every move we make.
For starters, the Legislature is on the move. Complying with state guidelines on “gathering” and state law on public access, legislative leadership is making plans to occupy new digs for at least the early days of the 130th Legislature. Both chambers in the State House have legislators seated less than 6 feet apart, so sessions will shift to the Augusta Civic Center until further notice.
Legislative committees may be able to continue to meet at the State House and State Office Building. There will have to be capacity limits in the committee rooms and “overflow” rooms for hearings that draw big crowds. Another high-risk area will be the hallways outside committee rooms where lawmakers and lobbyists hang out, awaiting their time to testify.
Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate are accustomed to caucusing in leadership offices adjacent to the chambers, where it’s wall-to-wall bodies in close proximity. Less formal kibitzing is done in the Cross cafeteria, where hasty consults happen over egg salad sandwiches, six people squished into a booth for four.
Lawmakers from the late ’90s will remember the days when major renovation was going on at the State House and the Legislature had to decamp for a session. There were meetings all over Augusta, and lots of dashing back and forth between them. Getting from the committee on which a legislator served to the committee where he or she wanted to testify on a bill was no longer a matter of racing down a hallway. It might involve a cross-town car trip, another search for parking and facing the wrath of a committee chairman kept waiting.
Meeting off-site lacks the gravitas of the deep-rooted history the State House imbues to all who enter to serve or to supplicate. From the spectacular view up into the dome, to the closeted quarters of the governor on the second floor, to the worn granite steps to the third floor and the dignity of the two legislative chambers, it is just not the same to meet anywhere else.
The logistics of moving all those legislators, not to mention staff and necessary paperwork and technology, is staggering. It will all be managed under the direction of the 10-member Legislative Council, consisting of the two presiding officers (Senate president and House speaker) and the eight leaders of the four legislative caucuses: Senate and House majority and minority leaders.
On the Senate side, all the Democratic officers will stay in place. Troy Jackson is nominated to remain Senate president and Sens. Nate Libby and Eloise Vitelli as majority leader and assistant. For Republicans, since Minority Leader Dana Dow lost his seat Jeff Timberlake will move up from assistant to minority leader and Matt Pouliot has been elected assistant minority leader.
For the House, Rep. Ryan Fecteau has been nominated speaker. His formal election will take place on Dec. 2 when the Legislature convenes. The House majority leader will be Michelle Dunphy, the assistant Rachel Talbot Ross. Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham will stay in her post and assistant minority leader will be Joel Stetkis of Caanan.
The most important person in Maine you have never heard of is Grant Pennoyer. He is one of Maine’s unsung heroes, serving in the vital (and invisible) role of director of the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which staffs the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, and then shifting to executive director of the Legislative Council.
Pennoyer was meticulous in his support of the Appropriations Committee, working the arcane details of the state budget down to the penny. Scrupulously nonpartisan, he has served the Legislative Council with distinction. In this role, “distinction” means no one ever knew he was there. No one ever heard his voice or saw his face, but his rock-solid performance meant the council could function at peak performance. Grant Pennoyer is retiring this year after 36 years of service to the Maine Legislature. Grant, you’re the best.
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.