Republican lawmakers are refusing to cooperate with a Democratic effort to call the Legislature back into a special session to complete unfinished business and take up measures that would enhance state government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature, which adjourned in mid-March just before the pandemic’s onset in Maine, has hundreds of unfinished bills sitting in limbo. Democrats also say they want to pass new bills aimed at problems or concerns that have developed as a result of the pandemic. The tasks include trying to solve problems in the state’s unemployment insurance system, which has struggled to meet the needs of thousands of newly unemployed workers.

The two Black lawmakers in the Legislature also have been urging their colleagues to act quickly on bills that address systemic racism in Maine and other racial inequities, including the state’s racial disparity in coronavirus infection rates – the largest in the U.S.

But Republicans are demanding that Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, agree to limit the scope of the session to curtailing Gov. Janet Mills’ executive powers and addressing COVID-19 issues.

Under the Maine Constitution, the Legislature’s presiding officers can call lawmakers back to work after they poll members and obtain consent from a majority of each party caucus. But 67 Republicans refused to answer the poll, while one agreed to a special session and two voted against it, according to a news release Thursday morning from House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson. The two top Democrats said 109 Democrats agreed to a special session, along with the Legislature’s six independent lawmakers and one non-voting tribal member.

Mills has responded to the pandemic with a series of executive orders, as allowed under Maine law during a civil state of emergency, which she declared in March and has extended for 30 days three times since then.

Though Mills has guided the state to one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation, she has been criticized for the restrictions she’s placed on sectors of the state’s economy, especially the entertainment and tourism sectors.

For example, the administration has set limits on the number of customers that can be in retail establishments based on their floor space, ordered physical distancing and facial covering requirements, and placed a limit on gatherings to 50 people or fewer – among dozens of other measures.

Republicans have said they want to change the state of emergency law that grants the governor broad powers so that the statute requires orders issued during an emergency be made in collaboration the Legislature.

“Without an agreement to address this issue and focus our scope of work specifically on the impact an ongoing state of emergency is having on Mainers, House Republicans will not support a special session,” House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said in a prepared statement. “We cannot say, on the one hand, that groups over 50 can’t safely meet, and then convene 186 members of the Legislature to take up non-emergency issues.”

Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said he also worries that physical distancing and other restrictions in place because of the pandemic would likely exclude citizens and their advocates from the lawmaking process.

“The more work we take on in such a special session, the more business would be conducted without appropriate public input and participation,” Dow said.

Gideon said the Democratic caucus is willing and ready to return to work. The House speaker from Freeport, who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in the fall, has been heavily criticized by Collins’ campaign and supporters for not acting in her legislative capacity to help the state better respond to the pandemic.

Gideon said state lawmakers are uniquely positioned to understand the deep impacts the pandemic is having on individuals, families and businesses.

“Unfortunately, when presented with the question about returning to our important work, the way thousands of hard-working Mainers are today, certain members chose not to participate,” Gideon said of the poll of lawmakers. “It is increasingly difficult to take my Republican colleagues’ repeated demands of reconvening the Legislature seriously when they have just refused to vote to take that very action.”

Jackson, the Senate president, said Mainers are looking to the Legislature for more help and lawmakers should get back to work now while the infection rate is declining, before a possible surge from the virus, along with the upcoming flu season, sets the state back again in the fall.

“Back in March, all four legislative leaders put aside partisan politics and came together for the good of the state, recognizing the severity of this crisis and the leadership the moment required. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do the same today,” the Democrat from Allagash said.

Jackson also threw a jab at Collins on Twitter over her campaign’s prior criticisms of Gideon and the Legislature for not getting back to work sooner. “I’ve remained silent while you attacked us for not reconvening the Legislature,” he tweeted, pointing to a Collins tweet criticizing Gideon. “Today, Republicans refused to let us finish our work in Augusta. I hope you take down tweets like this and instead tell Legislative Republicans to do their jobs.”

Mills has the constitutional authority to call lawmakers back into session. She has previously said she would do so when she believed it was safe. Her office did not respond to questions from a reporter Thursday about when or if she might take that step.

Looming over the legislative session, whenever it occurs, is an anticipated state budget revenue shortfall that will likely exceed $800 million. The Maine Constitution requires a balanced state budget, which means the Legislature will have to work in concert with Mills to cut spending, increase revenues by raising additional taxes – or likely some of both.

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