State of Maine: Participation takes a hit during long-distance legislating



The days grow long and the 130th Legislature lumbers on. A mystery to the average bear in the best of times, we now see Augusta as through a glass, darkly. Many of the key indicators relied on by those who stay close to the process are missing. 

The limited presence of legislators in the Capitol makes a big difference. This is not a job to be phoned in. One indication of long-distance legislating is the paucity of sponsors on many bills. The lack of opportunity to collar a colleague in the hall or lean on personal relationships across party lines means that most bills have fewer sponsors than usual. 

The list of sponsors on a bill jacket gives hints about the bill’s likelihood of success. Are there any members of leadership signed on? Is it bipartisan? Are there sponsors from the committee that will own the bill? 

Also lost is much of the opportunity to lobby one’s friends and neighbors in the chamber, begging for votes or trading favors. The Civic Center may be a lifeline that allows legislators to gather in some semblance of a session, but it is a poor substitute for the Statehouse, where in normal days legislators are shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues all the livelong day. 

At the Civic Center, safe distances are maintained, and rightly so, but it is hardly conducive to heart-to-heart chats among seatmates. Gone are the nooks, cubbies and benches under the dome on the third floor. And the porch! May and June are made for the porch on the front of the Capitol Building with its splendid view over Capitol Park and the rocking chairs that can be dragged together in conversational clumps. 

It is safe to say that leadership is still gathering, as it always does, out of the public eye. The majority party is wrestling with operational decisions such as preserving the safety of the rank and file, deciding when committees must report bills out and keeping a close eye on the adjournment meter ticking away in the background.  

How much consultation is happening between the majority and the minority party? This varies quite a bit, being a function of the political climate, the size of the majority and the predilections of majority leaders. It does not help when the players are scattered over the landscape. 

Nor is the relationship between legislators and the administration facilitated when much of the Legislature is missing in action most of the time. The Governor’s Office is on the second floor and the home of the Legislature is on the third, where the chambers are located. Yet there are legislative meeting rooms on the second floor, including the headquarters of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee, meaning that in normal times there are plenty of chances that legislators will run into Cabinet members or other administration staffers on a regular basis. Now, not so much. 

In this particular session, a procedural maneuver has not helped the atmosphere. Democrats opted to pass a majority budget, an option for a party with a majority in both chambers. But there is a constitutional stipulation that bills only take effect 90 days after they are passed. For a budget, that 90-day period must take place before the end of the fiscal year so state government activities may continue unabated. 

That is why most budgets are passed as emergency legislation, allowing them to take effect immediately but requiring a two-thirds vote to do so. A two-thirds vote five minutes before midnight on the last day of the fiscal year will suffice. 

That 90-day meter for a majority budget only begins running once the Legislature has adjourned, so some sleight of hand is required. As soon as the majority budget is passed, the Legislature must adjourn, but at that point in the session all the other work is nowhere near done. Everything else must be carried over to the second year of the session, which does not start until 2022, or to a special session which can convene immediately after adjournment. And so it was that the hundreds of bills in the pipeline were carried over to a special session which began immediately after “adjournment.”  

Now, as crunch time hits and the June 16 statutory deadline approaches, leadership has resorted to the unfortunate habit of waiving the customary two weeks’ notice that must be given prior to a public hearing. Interested in the fate of a bill? You must be watching every day to see if it has popped up on a hearing list. Have a job? Kids? You may have less than 72 hours’ notice to submit testimony. 

No wonder most citizens have a hard time participating in the process. It is hard enough under normal circumstances but during the pandemic? Good luck. 

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.