It’s time to start talking about reopening the State House — safely.

Although it’s no surprise that restrictions on business operations have dominated headlines — and policymaking by Gov. Janet Mills — we shouldn’t forget the equally vital operations of the rest of state government. That’s especially true because the Legislature shut down in the midst of its annual session due to the unfolding pandemic.

Mills has so far used her emergency powers to the fullest. But, unfortunately, she is not taking advice, or even holding phone conferences with any lawmakers other than Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Asked whether there might be some formal role for lawmakers, short of calling a special session, her communications director cited an answer she gave at a Maine CDC briefing, that her office was receiving “thousands of consultations and advice” and was “taking all of that into consideration.”

Lawmakers weren’t mollified, with Republicans especially restive. In what he called a “shot across the bow” Senate Leader Dana Dow and his House counterpart, Kathleen Dillingham, called for a special session to remove the governor’s emergency powers, or — in a subsequent version — require a two-thirds vote by both House and Senate before she could extend the emergency.

Neither is a basis for returning to Augusta, but Democratic leaders share Republicans’ concerns. At some point, legislative business must resume, and — with a host of challenges facing us that can as yet scarcely be imagined — it should be sooner rather than later.

There will be no rush to return. Several legislators meet the “immunocompromised” standard, and many are of an age where extra precautions are necessary.

One essential change would be using, in the short-term, remote voting for lawmakers who feel they can’t or shouldn’t attend even physically distanced State House meetings. Congress has just made this change, with the House trying to ensure, as Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, put it, that members don’t become coronavirus “super spreaders.”

Many state legislatures — at least a dozen to date — have or are about to resume sessions. Most are full-time, professional legislatures, and some returned to make partisan demands for faster re-opening; in Mississippi, Republicans are fighting internally about this.

That’s not the reason Maine legislators should return. Mills has mostly used her emergency powers wisely, and she’s been flexible in her approach, allowing dentists to reopen, for instance, and giving the OK to in-state use of campgrounds for Memorial Day.

There are still complaints about the summer tourist season, but we just have to accept that it will be a bad one. Abandoning the 14-day quarantine rules would be tantamount to inviting the virus in from every quarter of the globe, since it won’t be possible to test everyone at the border.

Yet where state government is concerned, a safe return can be managed. New Hampshire is providing an example.

Last week, lawmakers there announced they’d be returning in early June, but not in the usual way. The 24-member Senate will use the House chamber, while the 400-member House will decamp to a very large auditorium at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

The New Hampshire House is the largest legislative body in the country except Congress. Maine’s House, while large, is — at 151 members— less than half that size. And given that New Hampshire has had twice as many COVID-19 cases, and deaths, as Maine, one can see that safely resuming meetings here is possible.

We would need to be similarly creative; the Augusta Civic Center is large enough for the House. Adapting to pandemic changes will require such thinking throughout our public lives.

In addition to hundreds of bills left in limbo, there are major budget decisions ahead. While the $1.25 billion allocated to Maine from the CARES Act cannot be used to directly fund vital state services, it’s only right lawmakers weigh in on how it is directed.

Then there’s the question of a second congressional plan — currently deadlocked between the Democratic House and Republican Senate — that would provide direct relief to state budgets, for which the need will be overwhelming.

Put bluntly, states can’t run unbalanced budgets, but Congress can, and the Federal Reserve continues to print money at record rates. Suggesting states and cities can declare bankruptcy instead, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell notoriously did, is simply foolish.

Yet legislatures across the country — we’re all in this together, right? — will be a lot more effective pressuring Congress when they’re back in session, not just emailing and phoning.

For all these, and other reasons, lawmakers should start planning their return. And if the governor won’t call them back, they ought to do it themselves.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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