Special session poses challenges

“Dear Legislators: Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here. Love, Governor LePage.” Okay, he didn’t put it quite like that, but the governor is calling the Legislature into special session “before November.”

The governor says two problems have come up that cannot wait until January when the Legislature reconvenes. One has to do with local regulation of “food systems” that passed unanimously in both houses in June and was signed by the governor. It would take effect Nov. 1, hence the abovementioned “before November” deadline in his letter to legislative leadership.

LD 725 allows local control of certain aspects of food production, processing and direct-to-consumer sales. The problem lies with the Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, currently run by the state under an agreement with the federal government. That agreement requires that control be statewide, not local. The governor proposes to remove meat and poultry from the food sovereignty bill.

The second matter is funding for the Maine Office of Geographic Information Systems. A proposal by the governor to create a Department of Technology Services included reductions in funding for GIS. When the Technology Services proposal was rejected by the Legislature, funding for the office was not restored.

The governor has constitutional authority to convene the legislature “on extraordinary occasions” (Article 5, Section 13). His letter to leadership informs them that he will call a “special emergency legislative session … to address two time sensitive issues.” So far, so good. The Legislature is likely to concur with the necessity to fix the food sovereignty bill. The GIS funding reduction may have been inadvertent, but a solution will require finding the money to fix it. That could provoke some debate.

Here’s the rub. Once they are in, the governor has no authority to restrain the Legislature from taking up additional matters. That is the Legislature’s choice. Two major items were unresolved in their recently adjourned session, both stemming from citizen initiatives passed last November: the implementation of marijuana legalization and ranked-choice voting.

House Speaker Sara Gideon already has expressed her intention to task the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee with sorting out the constitutional problem with the ranked-choice voting referendum. The failure to resolve that during the regular session left the referendum in place and raises the specter of electoral confusion and possible challenges to the results in November 2018.

There is a bill already on the table proposing a fix. LD 1646 would implement RCV for those elections not deemed at cross-purposes with the constitution. It was submitted early in August and carried over to the next regular or special session. A bill to repeal RCV was killed, as was a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to rectify the problem.

Another sticky wicket that could be addressed in a special session is the implementation of the legalization of marijuana, about which a proposal is expected this month. Supporters of legalization are pressing hard for action and do not want to see this linger until January.

Both of these issues were the subject of beaucoup discussion during the regular session. How the heck is the Legislature going to find a quick solution now? It will be ugly if they go in and can’t get out. The public will be watching. Imperfect though they may have been, these initiatives both passed at the ballot box and need to be resolved.

There are always legislators ready to jump at the chance to propose legislation in a special session, putting forward ideas they think just can’t wait. It is an opportunity to pop a bill in and get it taken care of in the constrained atmosphere of a special session, rather than in a big, bill-laden regular session. Leadership does its best to resist the introduction of such bills, but somehow a few always seem to get in.

Sometimes these are bills that seek nothing more than to make a statement. As we ramp up for the 2018 elections, these might be bills “memorializing” Congress to take certain actions—or to refrain. They are entirely political in nature and should be avoided at all costs.

Legislators who feel like they just adjourned, because they did, are not all that excited about going back in. However, the governor’s case, particularly regarding food sovereignty, is likely one they will acknowledge as necessary. The cost of a special session is estimated at something north of $40,000 per day.

The Senate likely would be in this fall anyway for confirmations of gubernatorial appointees when that is required, but those sessions are usually a quick in and out; the much larger House of Representatives is not involved. A full special session entails all the trappings of legislative days, which are not known for their efficiency.

The 128th Legislature just might set a record for days in the saddle. Mainers will want that seat time to translate into productivity. The coming winter’s regular session will be challenging enough with the November 2018 election looming. A messy special session this fall could make it even worse.

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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