Here’s a message for members of the Maine Legislature: Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Childish? You bet.

Perfectly fitting? That too.

For those of you who haven’t been closely following the drama – and by that I mean just about everyone – efforts to bring lawmakers back to Augusta for a much-needed special session are fast moving from frustrating to downright absurd.

Democrats in both the Senate and House want to do it, pronto, before this window of opportunity amid the COVID-19 pandemic slams shut.

Republicans in both the Senate and House, who back in May clamored for a return to Augusta, now don’t want to come anywhere near the place.

“It’s the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, fumed in a telephone interview.

“If the governor calls us back in … I’ll be there,” countered Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, in a separate interview. “But I’m going to make sure I guard my health. I’ve told people if I get COVID-19, you can kiss me goodbye. “

Let’s discuss.

Back when the Legislature temporarily closed up shop on March 17, no one knew how long the hiatus would last. But by May, as they watched Gov. Janet Mills exercise the emergency executive powers they’d bestowed upon her before leaving Augusta, Republican lawmakers had seen enough.

“We write to ask that you call the Legislature back into session,” they wrote in a May 2 letter to Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. Their goal: To rescind Mills’ emergency powers and then quickly go back home.

Didn’t happen. It’s too soon to reconvene, said the Democrats. Better to wait until Maine’s COVID-19 response blunts the spread of the disease and lawmakers can gather without putting themselves and those around them in peril.

Fast-forward to Friday, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Maine, with only 122 new cases of COVID-19 in the previous seven days, was trailed only by Vermont (with 52 new cases) among all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Meaning it’s relatively safe to come out now, provided we do so cautiously and with common sense. And while COVID-19 explodes in other states – Florida reported 12,444 new cases on Friday alone – there’s every reason to believe Maine, rather than being out of the woods, is more in the eye of the hurricane when it comes to the future spread of the disease.

In short, if ever there was a time for the Legislature to return for a few days – not to the State House but to the roomier Augusta Civic Center – this is it. In addition to dealing with such weighty pandemic-related issues as the looming school year and this week’s end to enhanced unemployment benefits, scores of bills that were left hanging in March still await final action.

In a poll undertaken this month by Jackson and Gideon – under Maine’s Constitution, a majority of each party caucus must agree to a special session – all 109 Democratic lawmakers, along with six independents and one tribal representative, voted to come back.

And the Republicans? One voted to return, two voted not to, and the other 67 did not respond to the poll.

“We did our own poll,” Dow said. “You can get those numbers. It’s not a secret.”

Ah, but it is. A check late Friday with the House clerk’s office and the secretary of the Senate revealed that no such numbers were submitted, just a letter from the Republican leaders in each chamber that a “majority” of their caucuses were opposed to coming back.

The plot thickens.

Dow, acknowledging that the governor could order a special session any time she wants, has a theory that Mills won’t do so because she’d be put in the awkward position of vetoing a number of Democratic bills with which she disagrees.

“To be absolutely truthful, I don’t think the governor wants us back in session,” Dow mused. “The silence is deafening.”

Or not. Lindsay Crete, the governor’s press secretary, responded in an email that Mills has no problem vetoing bills she considers contrary to “the best interests of Maine people.”

“The bottom line here is that Republicans could have returned, but they decided not to – despite their months of complaining. And rather than cast a vote, they’re now trying to shift responsibility for their inaction to the Governor. It seems like Senator Dow would like Governor Mills to do his job for him,” Crete said.

Back to Jackson, who insists that it’s the Legislature’s job, not the governor’s, to call itself back into session: “If (the Republicans) had any intestinal fortitude, they’d at least present the (results of their) poll. It just blows me away.”

Over in the House, where Speaker Gideon is also locked in her race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the standoff has grown even more transparent.

While Republican lawmakers essentially ignore Gideon’s poll about returning to work, Camp Collins continues to hammer her in a TV ad that says Gideon “did nothing” during the early days of Maine’s pandemic shutdown and has “delivered no help for Maine.”

How convenient. Collins slams her opponent for not coming back to work, while Collins’ own party prevents that from happening.

Said Gideon in an email Friday: “Mainers across the state continue to face significant hardships – the loss of employment, the closing of a business, housing insecurity, uncertainty surrounding childcare and education are some of the most pressing issues. That’s why we have called on every legislator to come do their jobs, address those needs and reconvene for a special session.”

And on it goes.

Senate Minority Leader Dow insists that the 186-member Legislature can’t possibly gather as long as the governor’s order banning gatherings of more than 50 people remains in effect.

The governor’s office counters that lawmakers could arrange themselves in groups of 50 or fewer and still get their work done.

Legislative committees, including Republican members, continue to meet and report out bills – as of Wednesday, 54 bills had cleared various committees.

Yet even as they help move legislation that far, the Republicans refuse to gather en masse to see those measures to fruition.

How does that make sense?

It doesn’t. Unless you consider that the Republicans’ strategy might have a lot more to do with political gamesmanship than with the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Maine struggles to chart a path forward, they play hide-and-seek.


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