State of Maine: Constructive use of free time is key for state legislators

Once upon a time, elementary school students received a grade on their report card for “using your free time to good advantage.” Since the advent of the cell phone, we all fail on that one, but back in the day a reflective 8-year-old might have pondered what “good advantage” meant.

Doing homework? Tidying up your desk? Helping a coach put away gym equipment? Yes, but that’s all a bit self-serving for the school. Starting a club, or writing for the school newspaper? That gets closer to the good of the community. Conspiring to upend the school bully? That might be to good advantage but is probably not what the school had in mind.

If ever there was a community rich with free time, it is a legislature. Structured time in session or committee meetings is one part of a legislator’s work in the Capitol; free time is another. Free time is both abundant and random. A session meant to start at 10 a.m. could still be in a holding pattern at 11 while leadership in a back office hammers out what bills will be brought up and what position the caucus will be urged to take.

Unlike the olden days when legislators used to gather in the evening at one Augusta watering hole or another, the Legislature of today disperses at night and on weekends, so the betwixt and between moments in the State House are where much of the kibbitzing takes place. A lot can be accomplished by an alert legislator with a mental list of who she needs to speak with and a grip on the questions she needs answered.

The bell that rings signifying the start of a session may blare on for half an hour, piercing the skull with its penetrating insistence, but seasoned legislators do not head for the chamber until the bell stops. Only then is the sound of the gavel heard and that’s when you know the presiding officer means business.

The morning session may start late or adjourn early. It may recess at any time for reasons unbeknownst to the rank and file, to return in a few minutes or a few hours. That’s when the cell phones come out or legislators dash to the Revisor’s Office, the law library or the coffee shop.

Once a session begins, it is all business. Action in the chamber is directed by the Constitution, law and custom. Everything from how, when and why one may address the chamber, how to request permission to speak and how often one may do so, how to refer to one’s fellow legislators, when to rise to one’s feet and when and where to sit is established by rule. The presiding officer has the last word, as well as the first. Committees, too, are formal affairs, particularly during a hearing, but even in a work session there is protocol.

Pauses in the scheduled action are when the hive comes to life. There are benches and chairs all over the third floor, the floor where the legislative chambers are located, and they fill up quickly when the House or Senate takes a break. Lobbyists collar lawmakers and vice versa. Legislators corner colleagues to enlist support for a bill, to find a champion in the other chamber, to berate the opposition or to dig out the latest scuttlebutt from the other chamber or the other party.

In the spring? It’s all about the balcony, baby! That second-floor retreat with a view over Capitol Park, the trees in bloom, and lovely old rocking chairs that can be dragged into collegial clumps is a place where the tension within the building cools down a few degrees. Conversations grow philosophical, and legislators are more likely to mix it up across party lines. It makes one wonder what would happen if the whole legislature met outdoors.

At the very end of the session, when 10 minutes of chamber action may be followed by an hour or two of sitting around while the Senate awaits paper from the House or, more likely, the House waits on the Senate, there is grumbling about the long delays but most of the time these legislative pauses are an opportunity to use your free time to good advantage.

Is that informal collegial contact a violation of the public’s “right to know”? No, because none of that translates into lawmaking until the members are again assembled in the chamber and on record. Discussions not bound by the formal procedural rules in a legislative session may make a lot more progress toward consensus than the artificial debate that happens on the floor. Getting anything done at the state level may require legislators to use their free time to good advantage.


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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