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New Maine Legislature wrestling over how to meet safely during a pandemic

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New Maine Legislature wrestling over how to meet safely during a pandemic

With COVID-19 infections spreading rapidly around the state, the first meeting of Maine’s new Legislature won’t be under the State House dome.

Instead, lawmakers are expected to hold their first sessions at the 49,000-square foot Augusta Civic Center, the sports, concert and conference center owned and operated by the City of Augusta.

The iconic State House building and House and Senate meeting chambers don’t have enough space to keep 151 members of the House of Representatives and 35 senators at least 6 feet away from one another, the distance recommended to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

The next Legislature, Maine’s 130th, will be sworn in at the civic center, and committee meetings will likely be held at the State House campus, which includes the Burton M. Cross office building next door, said Mary Erin Casale, a spokeswoman for outgoing Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

“While current leadership, staff and nonpartisan offices have been working on logistics, ultimately the decision of how the 130th operates is up to the 130th,” Casale said. “So, there will be full details once each caucus and body elects its leadership.”

The full Legislature last met in March when it adjourned after first voting to approve a $76 million supplemental budget aimed at responding to COVID-19.

For incoming lawmakers, enacting a new two-year state budget is at the top of the work list. They may also have to adjust the current budget to keep it in balance, as required by the state constitution. That’s often done in concert with the governor, who makes budget proposals that are then acted on by the Legislature.

The budget process, which is always political, will be exceptionally difficult this year given that the pandemic-restricted economy has left state government with a projected budget shortfall of more than $1 billion.

Casale said Democrats, who still hold a majority in the House, will vote on their leaders Thursday. Last week, the House Republican minority re-elected Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, as minority leader and Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Caanan, as assistant minority leader.

In the Senate, where Democrats also hold a majority, Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, was elected majority leader while Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, was elected assistant majority leader. Senate Republicans have yet to elect leaders.

Democrats have the votes to elect the presiding officers – the House speaker and Senate president – which will allow them to largely control the agenda for the session.

Lawmakers will also fill the constitutional offices of secretary of state, state treasurer and attorney general. Those positions will also likely go to Democrats.

Only one of those three positions appears to be a contest, with several outgoing lawmakers campaigning to replace Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who has served four consecutive terms and can’t run again.

It’s unclear how voting will be carried out in the Civic Center. In the State House chambers, lawmakers press buttons on their desks that display their votes on electronic boards hung on the walls. They give floor remarks using a public address system, and proceedings are video lived-streamed and recorded on the Legislature’s own online audio-video system.

Libby said legislative leaders are forming COVID-19 operating plans, in part, by looking at what other states have done for proceedings such as floor-session voting. In New Hampshire, for example, state lawmakers took votes over the summer by entering the chamber one at a time to push their voting buttons.

“It’s a work in progress and we are trying to draw on the collective knowledge of the 49 other states who have faced similar problems,” Libby said.

Also unclear is how the public will interact with the Legislature while restrictions on gatherings are in place because of COVID-19.

Legislative committees held meetings earlier this year via video conferencing technologies like Zoom, and by spreading committee members out among State House meeting rooms. The proceedings were made available online but the general public was not allowed in the building. Those who wanted to testify on bills had to sign up in advance and present their testimony remotely during public hearings.

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about holding meetings without allowing full public access, a requirement under Maine’s open meetings and public records law, the Freedom of Access Act.

Also at issue is how lobbyists will access lawmakers.

Libby said Democrats were equally concerned. “It’s going to be challenging,” he said. “But the appreciation for public access is of bipartisan interest.”

Interactions with Gov. Janet Mills will also be affected by the pandemic. The governor normally delivers an annual State of the State Address to a joint convention in February. Governors also sometimes present budget briefings, or address lawmakers on special or solemn occasions or when announcing key initiatives in so-called “governor’s bills.” Maine governors also traditionally address both the House and Senate at the start and the end of each lawmaking session, usually with words of encouragement, gratitude or both.

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ press secretary, said legislative leaders have told the governor they intend to follow the COVID-19 health and safety protocols her administration has put in place – including facial covering requirements, indoor occupancy or group size limits and appropriate physical distancing.

“The (Mills) Administration will work collaboratively with them to that end,” Crete said.


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