State of Maine: Eleventh hour for Legislature

The ending of a legislative session is rarely pretty, but this one might qualify as one of the worst ever. It is not uncommon to have a pile of undone bills entering the final week, but somehow it all comes together in the last few days. Not this time.

By statute, the Legislature was due to adjourn on April 18. The Senate approved a five-day extension of the session, but the House could not muster the votes to extend. Issues large and small were at risk of dying unresolved. Bills left incomplete are dead at final adjournment, hence the maneuvering to extend the session and leave the door open to come back and finish. As the midnight hour approached and the wrangling went on, a procedural detail allowed the House to slip beyond the statutory adjournment time and effectively stay in session.

There is a big difference between final adjournment and adjournment to a time certain. Each time the legislature adjourns for a day, a weekend or a week, it does so until a specific time when it will resume work. At the end of a legislative year, the legislature adjourns “sine die,” without a day appointed for its return until the commencement of the next session.

Last week, rather than “finally adjourning,” the Legislature adjourned “until the call of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, respectively, when there is a need to conduct business or consider possible objections of the Governor.” Once the legislature has “finally adjourned,” there are still two ways in which it can come back into special session. One is at the call of the governor; the other is if two-thirds of each party agree to convene.

A little flexibility is a dangerous thing. The legislature is no different than the rest of us. If we have a week to get a report done, or a suitcase packed or a fence painted, we do it on the last day. So, too, does the legislature end up in a scramble to get the last bills pushed back and forth from House to Senate and conclude business on the waning days of the session.

This year, matters large and small are left undone. Tax conformity, Medicaid expansion, a bond package and a slow-down of the voter-approved minimum wage increase all are in limbo. Over 100 bills are sitting on the Special Appropriations Table awaiting funding. More than a billion dollars in bond proposals await action by the Legislature to send them on to the voters — or not.

Adding to the unfinished business are bills submitted by the governor in the final days of the session. This is crazy. They are not bills to address some unforeseen problem that just cropped up. His proposals include beefing up the Rainy Day Fund and increasing services for adults with mental illness and funding for child welfare.

Why on earth would a governor submit these major policy bills at the 11th hour? It is too late for full public hearing, too late for committee research and discussion, and too late to find a way to fund them.

The child welfare bill was printed on April 18, the day the Legislature was required to adjourn. The bill is a resolve to direct the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a “needs analysis” for a child welfare information system. The DHHS is a part of the administrative branch of state government. Why does the governor need a legislative resolve to direct his own DHHS to undertake this effort? When it comes to funding, yes, he will need the Legislature to act. But why was this being introduced on the last day of the session?

Another governor’s bill introduced on the day of adjournment sought to help adults with “serious and persistent mental illness” to obtain services from DHHS contractors or find redress through a “private right of action in District Court.” The legislature’s customary procedure calls for two weeks of public notice prior to a hearing. How does that happen with a bill introduced on the final day of a session?

Though the end of a session is always a mad rush, it is a true failure of leadership to reach the final day with so much unfinished business. The impending November elections don’t help when the parties are trying to stake out their positions on major issues. Yet under normal circumstances, even that can be overcome.

The trouble this year is the unusual dynamics under the dome where a single caucus, the House Republicans, have stood to block any compromise the Legislature otherwise might have reached. They may have been right in maintaining that the work of the Legislature should have concluded in a timely manner, but letting that many issues die unresolved means much of the session was a waste of legislators’ time and taxpayers’ money.

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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