State of Maine: Defining ’emergency’ in some pretty strange ways

The second regular session of the 129th Legislature is taking shape, even though it doesn’t start until the new year. It is the “short” session, the second year of the biennium, and per the Maine Constitution is limited to considering legislation “limited to budgetary matters,” bills submitted by the Governor’s office, bills reported out of study committees authorized in the first session, bills carried over from the first session and “legislation of an emergency nature admitted by the Legislature.”

There are 411 carry-overs, a deal leadership made with the devil to get out of Augusta on time. On top of those are the incoming bills “of an emergency nature.” Unlike the first regular session where anything goes, that restriction means bills submitted for the second session must be approved by the Legislative Council, comprised of the 10 leadership positions in the House and Senate.

Not unlike the running of the bulls, the running of the bills is fraught with drama. People can get hurt. Sponsors must appear before the Legislative Council to explain why their bills cannot wait until the next session.

An election intervenes between now and then, so legislators (a) cannot be sure they will be back to try again and (b) may lose the opportunity for a good selling point for their re-election. Bills must be let in by majority vote of the council. If one party controls both chambers, that party’s leaders control the council 6-4.

Party members do not need votes from across the aisle to get a bill in. It is a different story if party control is divided between the chambers, when Legislative Council membership consists of five from each party. There must be some making nice across the aisle.

The perpetual tension between chambers is still a factor. Legislators cannot assume support from both ends of the hall. While a legislator’s own chamber may rally to the cause, the other end of the hall might not give a fig, party member or not. Some bills are rejected because the subject they raise is too big to get at in the short session. Losing proposals sink out of sight with nary a ripple.

Earlier this month 397 bills were screened, 134 accepted and 29 tabled to fight another day. This was a successful run at keeping the numbers low, especially important with the large number of carry-overs. The challenge for the Legislative Council lies in the fact that the state constitution gives no hint of what might be meant by “emergency nature.”

That leaves the definition of “emergency” in the eye of the beholder. Employee safety within the funeral industry? Defining the terms “local milk” and “local cider”? The sponsoring legislator was willing to make the case that each of these is an emergency.

Minimizing “potentially objectionable license plates”? Requiring breaks for state prison guards? Increasing the salary of legislators and the governor? Establishment of a school for “persons convicted of engaging the services of a prostitute”? Prohibiting use of cell phones by bicyclists? Confinement of certain egg-laying hens? All of these were submitted as emergency measures; all failed admission.

One proposal defeated unanimously would have established the “last Saturday in October as the official day for ‘trick-or-treat’ in Maine.” Booo! Halloween is Oct. 31, right? And that is when we shall “trick-or-treat.”

Mind you, we only have the titles of these bills. The Legislative Council had the benefit of the sponsors’ explanations to guide their votes, making the inexplicable plain. Among the emergency measures approved for consideration are reducing the cost of epinephrine autoinjectors, facilitating dental treatment for children, reforming compensation for correctional officers and the financing of elder care facilities. They sound emergency-ish.

But there was this: a clutch of bills proposing gun safety measures was not admitted. They included bills to stop trafficking of firearms, ban assault weapons, ban distribution of assault weapons without proper authority, amend the definition of “machine gun,” allow concealed carry on school grounds by authorized persons and require liability insurance for purchasers of firearms.

None of the gun safety measures were deemed emergencies, but highway markers to “commemorate and recognize the Lafayette Trail”? Emergency. Renaming three bridges? Emergency.

It is worth noting that almost 100 bills — 25 percent — were screened in or out by unanimous vote. You go, guys! That’s more cooperation than some other people we could mention. More than 40 more bills were approved with just one dissenting vote or got bounced with only one “yes” vote — the sympathy vote.

It is a pretty good process. Bill sponsors know they have scant time to defend their proposals, so they cut to the chase, plus they get a clue as to who may be approachable in the other party.

Leadership knows the success of the session is riding on their decisions. It works.

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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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