In the wee hours of last Friday, June 18, the Legislature was released into the wild for two weeks with the intention of returning on June 30 to finish this year’s work. In a frenzied eight days, they moved ridiculous amounts of bills at a pace no one at a distance from Augusta could hope to follow.
What legislators have left on their plates is not nothing. There are still bills in the pipeline that need to be processed and it is a safe bet that some intrepid legislators will try to introduce a few new ones. Among the most challenging will be LD 221, a supplemental budget, and agreeing on how to spend federal money meant for the pandemic recovery.
End-of-session budget tension was ratcheted down by Democrats’ successful move to pass a majority budget in March. That removed the threat of a state shutdown if funding for the new fiscal year were not approved by June 30, but it does not eliminate the other financial wrangling that goes on whether the stakes include a shutdown or not.
They have to run the Appropriations Table where bills with fiscal notes sit until it is decided whether and how they will be funded. Often there is wholesale slaughter of bills on the table, despite that they have gone through the whole process to the verge of enactment. There just is not money, or at least not agreement, to spend. The lucky ones will be fully funded, others may receive partial funding, and still others will have their funding requests stripped out, getting the language of the legislation on the books with the hope that funding can be found at a later date.
They must deal with any bills Governor Janet Mills opts to veto. This pause in the action will see the 10-day meter run out within which she must act on all bills passed so far. Though she has expressed objections to a number of bills, no one is quite sure which of them she will actually nix.
Which brings us to the matter of the cleanup in aisle 3. A much-debated bill proposing the dissolution of Maine’s two largest power companies in favor of a consumer-owned utility appeared to be on the brink of a narrow victory after affirmative votes in both chambers. In a subsequent vote, two supporters, one of them a bill co-sponsor, got cold feet and joined the opposition. With that, the bill failed enactment in the Senate and was quickly put on ice to await the June 30 return of the Legislature.
Even before the duo had their change of heart, the bill was not a shoo-in. This was a bill on which Governor Mills expressed concerns from the start. Those concerns include loss of property tax revenue if the utilities become a nonprofit, inadequate qualifications for election to the board of directors and the potential use of eminent domain. Should the Governor decide to veto the bill, the Legislature is far from the two-third majority required to override.
Much is riding on the Governor’s veto decisions. She does not style herself a progressive and in some cases her party is out ahead of her, but she has the fortitude to toe her own line in the face of party pushback. The next gubernatorial election, in November 2022, is beginning to peep over the horizon. Governor Mills has indicated that she’s in.
While her vetoes may not be entirely driven by that, any politician would have it in the back of their mind. This is especially true with the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we debate about the utilities. Unimpressive performance by the current power companies has motivated the drive to go public, and most polls show Mainers lining up in favor. The fact that Mills has already persuaded two senators to switch their votes should bolster her resolve.
The rank and file will have a chance to get some sleep, take a deep breath and get reacquainted with friends and family on their home leave, but legislative leadership will be scrambling for ways to salvage sinking ships, agree on work limits for the final hours and tee up remaining items so they can be moved as quickly as possible.
As for legislative staff, there will be no mercy. Whatever leadership decides to do, staff must make it so. The myriad details that go into preparation for a session day, not to mention all the drafting, amending and revising that will be asked of them, will keep them hopping. For them, it is a blessing that the Legislature is out of town so they can put their heads down and work, work, work.
Safe to say one and all in Augusta will be glad to put legislating through a pandemic behind them.
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.