State of Maine: Calendar crunch facing bogged-down Legislature 



The Maine Legislature had barely reinhabited the State House when a first-floor flood shut the place down again for almost a week. Now legislators are back, trying to make progress toward adjourning by the statutory date of April 20. 

Last Thursday was just the eighth “legislative day” of the second and final year of the 130th Legislature. That has put the Legislature behind the 8-ball when it comes to getting out of town on time, yet the massive number of non-legislative items on the calendars would suggest a Legislature that has all the time in the world. 

Almost two decades ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures reviewed the operations of the Maine Legislature and recommended ways to enhance performance and streamline processes in Augusta, leaving more time for actual legislating. Nope. The House calendar for Thursday, March 24, demonstrated the Legislature’s intent to keep right on filling up the workdays with the ceremonial and the congratulatory. 

There was a joint resolution recognizing March 2022 as Bleeding Disorders Awareness Month. Another joint resolution reaffirmed “the friendship between Maine and Taiwan.” In the Senate, a joint resolution recognized Maine’s Realtors. Twenty-six legislators were ordered excused from legislative proceedings for health or personal reasons. 

The “Special Sentiment Calendar,” which the NCSL study specifically called out as ripe for reform, recognized 74 Mainers, individually, for everything from retirements to volunteerism, for pole vaulting, skiing, swimming and basketball, for the Girl Scout Silver and Eagle Scout Awards, and for reaching the age of 101. 

The NCSL study plainly stated that “the Maine Legislature spends too much time and too many resources on legislative sentiments.” The study recommended that a citation or certificate be created that could be given by legislators to their constituents to mark these accomplishments, but no, they are still acts of the Legislature requiring they be drafted, printed in an 11-by-14 format for presentation, introduced on the floor and voted on by both the House and Senate. 

This is not to belittle these significant achievements by Mainers far and wide. It is simply to acknowledge the time and effort it requires to run legislative sentiments through a system that is already on full screech by this time. Legislative staff, burdened with the many detailed tasks involved in enacting a bill with the utmost of care, must also produce the hundreds of legislative sentiments that pass through the chambers every session. 

Finally come the bills. Many, many bills. Scanning the calendars, tantalizing phrases fly by. Micropigmentation practitioners. Specially colored wheels for electric school buses. It is a rare bill that passes as submitted. Virtually all are fine-tuned, if not rewritten wholesale, by the policy committees. Even bill sponsors may dismantle their own beloved legislation. Bills designated an “emergency” (needing a two-thirds vote to pass but taking effect immediately rather than having to wait 90 days) have the emergency preamble stripped off so they can pass with a simple majority. 

Having largely ignored the findings of the 2005 study of legislative operations, a resolve, Establishing the Commission to Research Effective Strategies and Efficiencies of Legislatures, has been admitted and is awaiting final passage. The resolve proposes to address the size and structure of the Legislature, the joint standing committees and introduction of bills, the budget process, technology and transparency, term limits and the length of the legislative session. 

To pass a bill in Maine, a single document is passed back and forth from the House to the Senate. Amendments may be added by either body, but ultimately the bill must be agreed to in identical form by both chambers. Only then is it finally enacted. In the waning days of the session, this leads to hurry up and wait while paper is passed back and forth from one chamber to the other. 

Despite the late hour, bills are still being referred to committee. In another week or so, all rules about public notice for bill hearings and other process requirements will be abandoned in the mad rush to get done on time. There are 150 bills sitting on the Special Appropriations Table awaiting funding. The bad news? There’s money, so rather than killing those bills off wholesale, they will be deliberated. 

This is the time when leadership seizes the reins, issuing deadlines for committees to finish their work and relentlessly driving bills through floor votes. In the time of COVID, leadership wielded an unusual amount of power, making decisions for legislators who, in absentia, were less able to influence the process. It was a leadership dream come true.  

As COVID restrictions ease and legislators are once again working together under the dome, the rank and file will demand more of a voice and leadership will have to yield, restoring the balance between the leaders and the led. 

 

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. 

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

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.

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