Maine has a green thumb. We are good at agriculture, from our heritage farms in the County to the many thriving small farms spread throughout the state. But now we don’t just have a green thumb, we are a green thumb.
On color-coded data maps that show coronavirus cases and deaths per state, Maine is showing up as a green thumb in a sea of orange and red states due to a case incidence and death rate among the lowest in the United States. So, congratulations to Governor Janet Mills and her team, right? Of course not. She acted too fast. She waited too long. There’s no enforcement. She’s making us wear masks, and we don’t want to.
Numbers from Johns Hopkins University as of July 12 show average new cases per day in the United States at 57,812. In Maine, it’s 18, putting us among the four lowest states in the continental United States. For total deaths we are ninth lowest. There may be many reasons why our geographically large but not-so-populous state would be expected to have lower rates than places with more dense populations, but we compare favorably with states with similar demographics too.
The Maine Legislature sidelined itself last March, hastily adjourning with bipartisan consent to minimize risks for staff, citizens and legislators themselves in the confines of chambers and committee rooms. As they did so, they ceded control to the Governor, who quickly exercised her authority to declare a state of emergency. The purpose of such a declaration is so that a chief executive can take swift, unilateral action to address a crisis. An earthquake, a hurricane, fires or a deadly pandemic all qualify.
The normal procedures that regulate the life of the Legislature and the conduct of state business may be suspended if they “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency.” The resources of the state, the acquisition of property and supplies, evacuation of endangered areas and even the “sale, dispensing or transportation of alcoholic beverages” are all within the governor’s purview in an emergency.
All this is necessary for an emergency response to be effective, and in the case of coronavirus both parties were quick to endorse it. As the pandemic wears on, more legislators want back in on the action. Republicans in particular expressed a desire to convene as early as May 3. Never mind the Governor’s success in keeping Maine relatively safe. They were itching to get the economy on the move.
Well, who isn’t? Though we are learning how to manage some level of commerce while preserving public health, we are also learning the cost of opening too much, too soon. States that did found the pandemic roaring back. Then there was the avowed goal of Republicans, with no majority leverage anywhere, to strip the Governor of her emergency powers. Surely that did not provide Democrats with much incentive to return to Augusta.
It was over a month ago that Senate President Troy Jackson said the Legislature was “getting close” to starting its engines. Next came rumors about August, which we are fast approaching, still with no certainty.
In the Legislature’s defense, no matter who’s running the place the question of going back in is not a simple one for both political and logistical reasons. Outside of their regular sessions they may only meet at the call of the governor or of the presiding officers of both chambers with the support of a majority of both parties. That’s a high bar.
In addition, state law provides for the Legislature to meet at the State House and nowhere else. Public access to the proceedings is required. The two chambers in no way provide for social distancing. There is speculation about meeting at the Augusta Civic Center, which would presumably incur significant extra cost. There is a lot to figure out.
Add in the calculus of a high-stakes election year when both sides will be weighing the political advantages and risks of going in or staying out and you have — well, you have what we have. Mild agitation to convene mixed with hmm, maybe, I dunno.
There is one thing we do know. The field is set for the general election in November. It will be a relief to close the door on the contentious and mean-spirited 2nd Congressional District Republican primary in which the three candidates professed their undying love for Donald Trump, their disdain for the media and their scorn for each other, complete with the dramatic ripping up of a scurrilous but unidentified document.
In a primary one must try to distinguish oneself from one’s opponents but geez, fellas, you will likely have to work with those people in the future if you stay in politics. The bridge you burn may be your own path forward.