The second session of the 130th Maine Legislature got underway Jan. 5 with debate over whether committees should meet in person or remotely. Lawmakers gathered in person last week, but committees will meet remotely for now due to COVID-19. The rule passed 17-12 in the Senate with one Democrat, Sen. David Miramant of Camden, joining Republicans in opposition. The House vote was 73-53 in favor of virtual meetings.
On the major point, both sides were largely in agreement: Meeting in-person is better.
“If any of you think I wanted to serve as the Senate president under a system like this, you are crazy,” said Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson. “But I am going to continue to stay the course because I feel very strongly I don’t want to put anyone else’s life at risk.”
There is ample ground for concern. State Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) intended to be in Augusta last week but had to make a detour. The legislator, who is battling cancer, was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, according to the Bangor Daily News. Evangelos is vaccinated and has received a booster shot, according to the report, but cancer treatments can compromise the immune system. Two days later, this past Friday, COVID-19 hospitalizations hit a new peak with 391 patients in Maine hospitals. By Monday, hospitalizations hit 403.
Meanwhile, not all lawmakers and members of the public have demonstrated a commitment to those precautions that can make meeting in-person less risky, including proper masking and vaccination.
Republicans said that many Mainers are back to work (if they ever left) and legislators should be too. They advocated for a hybrid model in which the public could testify in person or remotely. The goal being “a process that promotes maximum participation from the general public on decisions that impact their daily lives,” according to Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor). He also pointed out that many newer legislators have never met face-to-face with colleagues, impeding their ability to connect, and, perhaps, compromise.
Not everyone has a high-speed internet connection, or even a computer, but virtual attendance has been a boon for some. Jackson said he has seen increased participation from northern Aroostook County constituents.
Two years into the pandemic, it’s clearer than ever that COVID-19 is something we’re going to have to learn to live with. Legislative leaders should revisit the rules regularly with the goal of resuming as much in-person work as possible. For now, caution is a show of solidarity with Maine workers – those in the state’s strained health-care system. They do have to report to work, but don’t need any more of it.
However committees convene, the format should not upstage the tasks before legislators this session.
Topping the list will be considering a supplemental budget from the Governor, and the question of what to do with a projected $822 million surplus. That’s not to mention taking up more than 300 bills that were carried over or approved for emergency consideration. Full steam ahead.