Four days before the first anniversary of Gov. Janet Mills’ first COVID emergency proclamation, the Maine Senate defeated a legislative attempt to “terminate the state of emergency first proclaimed by Governor Janet T. Mills on March 15, 2020.” The resolution that would have ended the Governor’s emergency authority was introduced by Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford and fended off in the Maine Senate by a 19-15 vote.
Much has changed in the past year. Treatment has improved, testing is available, several vaccines have been approved and more are in the pipeline. Vaccine distribution and administration is ramping up rapidly. Chaos reigned for months, but much is finally going smoothly and more and more Mainers are getting protected.
So why does Maine’s governor still need emergency powers? Our state constitution gives “supreme executive power” to the governor but does not provide for emergency authority. That is granted in Title 37, Section 742, of Maine law. It is worth a read.
The authority is broad and references “disaster or civil emergency.” It permits the governor by oral proclamation to declare that an emergency exists and to activate emergency plans in “any or all areas of the state.” A written proclamation must be filed with the secretary of state within 24 hours of the oral proclamation. It allows the governor to use “forces and resources” as required to address an emergency.
Emergency powers are sweeping. The governor may suspend any laws or rules that “prevent, hinder or delay” a response. Utilize “all available resources” of state and local government as “reasonably necessary.” “Direct and compel the evacuation of all or part of the population” from areas affected. Suspend or limit the “sale, dispensing or transportation of alcoholic beverages, explosive and combustibles.” “Modify or suspend the requirements for professional or occupational licensing” to provide for an appropriate disaster response.
Gov. Mills has renewed her emergency proclamation 11 times. Senate Republicans, plus three Democrats, say enough is enough and it is time to get back to regular business. What is different about this emergency is its duration. It is quite different from something like a storm, an oil spill or a flood. In those instances, the immediate threat is soon over. Not so with COVID-19.
Mainers are still getting sick and dying. Examples are abundant of attempts to return to “normal” that did not go well. From the White House to Florida beaches, to weddings, bars, restaurants or accessing a health–care facility for reasons unrelated to COVID, this is the disease that keeps on keeping on. Add in the skepticism of the American public and the refusal of many to comply with simple guidelines for protection, rather than putting this behind us we continue to seesaw between precautions and defiance, lockdown and “freedom.”
Sen. Bennett’s resolution to terminate the state of emergency laid out his case in the “whereases.” Not all of them match the reality many of us think we lived through. One “whereas” asserts that the Governor acted “without consulting the Legislature … for nearly a year.”
This is a case of the “missing whereas.” There is no whereas that mentions last July when legislators were polled by leadership to determine their willingness to come back to Augusta. Democrats agreed, but Republicans? One said yes, two said no, and the other 67? Crickets. Democrats tried again in August, to similar effect. Republicans cannot claim the high ground here.
Another “whereas” says the Governor’s actions were taken “without providing the Legislature with a sufficient scientific rationale or justification.” Hmm. Who was that fellow, a public health expert, on the radio five days a week, now still two days a week, who presented the current state of the pandemic in Maine and answered every last question the media had?
Then there is the “whereas” that says that “lives of Maine citizens, local jobs and small businesses and activities that promote health and well-being have been lost without due consideration.” Without due consideration? The Governor and her administration have eaten, breathed and slept COVID-19 24/7 for a year. Feel free to disagree with her management if you wish, but to say she has not given it “due consideration” is both inaccurate and unfair.
A governor’s emergency authority allows for two things that are often in short supply in government: speed and flexibility. Both are essential in a crisis. Sometimes an emergency proclamation is required to be able to receive or disburse federal funds.
The Legislature is struggling to get a session going under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a shadow of its former self and a risk to lawmakers and the legions of people who staff them. The Governor’s caution has served us well. A return to normalcy will be welcome and should be expected soon.
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.