For the past four months, Maine Governor Janet Mills, like all governors, has been confronted with questions as novel as they are complex. With a new virus threatening lives around the globe and already killing over 100,000 Americans, it has been a daunting task to develop and understand the science surrounding the coronavirus and to decide what to do about it.
March 13 saw the first two deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Maine. Four days later, the Maine Legislature had adjourned and left town after a mad scramble to resolve some of the many issues still facing a Legislature not due to adjourn for another month. Bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate called it “the responsible thing to do.”
The process of managing a state emergency requires cooperation between the executive and legislative branches. First, the governor must declare a state of emergency, giving the governor broad authority to manage a crisis. Governor Mills did that initially on March 15 and has extended it each month since.
Governor Mills then introduced LD 2167, “An Act to Implement Provisions Necessary to the Health, Welfare and Safety of the Citizens of Maine in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency,” a bill requiring legislative approval to further shape her actions under her emergency authority.
All normal procedures (public notice, committee hearings and work sessions) were suspended to move the bill quickly. The rapidly-evolving public health crisis sent it through both chambers at lightning speed, unanimously and unamended.
The bill gives various authorities the flexibility to regulate school attendance and unemployment benefits, extend municipal budgets, postpone town meetings, extend licensing deadlines, conduct public business electronically, continue residential electric and water service and delay Maine’s ban on plastic bags.
Six weeks later, the Legislature is thinking about whether they should continue to leave emergency decisions to the chief executive or whether they should take a role themselves. One obstacle: what the Legislature giveth, only the Legislature can taketh away.
The Legislature would have to reconvene to rescind or amend authority granted to the Governor under LD 2167, and the commendable bipartisanship of the initial emergency response may be in shorter supply now. Going back into session requires the call of the governor or of the presiding officers—the Senate President and House Speaker.
The Governor is not likely to convene the Legislature for the purpose of revoking her emergency authority, and the presiding officers can only do so if the majority of members of both parties agree. Thus begins the weighing of the political advantages or disadvantages to convening. The legislator with the most at stake politically is House Speaker Sara Gideon, locked in a momentous battle with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Would reconvening be an opportunity, or would a wobbly session weaken her public image? And for how long would it take her off the campaign trail?
This is not to suggest that Speaker Gideon would give short shrift to the demands of her current office over those of her campaign, but still, someone in her inner circle is making those calculations…
For the most part, Mainers have been supportive of the Governor’s measures to minimize the spread of coronavirus, but now that the sun is out, Acadia National Park is opening and the tourist-based businesses of Hancock County are looking for customers, restlessness is growing. And when the people grow restless, legislators get itchy to respond.
Here’s the biggest problem with the Legislature inserting itself into what so far has been a one-woman show. As a body, they are ill-suited to emergencies. They meet in their respective chambers, then dissolve into partisan groups for caucuses in the back offices. Then they go back into the chambers, then back into caucuses, and then disperse into committee rooms. In other words, a lot of talk precedes action.
The decisions around the coronavirus crisis are nothing but weighty, sometimes literally a matter of life and death. In an emergency, the chief executive has the ability to respond to what have been daily changes in our understanding of the coronavirus and how best to protect the public health.
She has a cabinet full of advisors in all major areas of public policy. She has access to every other governor, their successes and failures with managing the virus, and to the federal administration and its advisors.
Finally, for better or worse, she has a single-mindedness of purpose. The two major parties in the legislature may have perfectly legitimate policy debates about how to manage this or any other crisis, but what is needed now is speed and flexibility. Governor Mills will be judged for her handling of the pandemic, but that will come later. For now, she has performed her most fundamental duty. She has acted.