COVID has made it difficult to get people together. It may also make the Legislature more open to the public.

As the 130th Maine Legislature begins its session amid a pandemic, the notoriously stuck-in-its-ways body is being forced to balance their obligations to open government with their duty to protect public health.

To their credit, legislative leaders are finding ways to do their work that not only will keep members, staff and the public safe, but could also make public participation easier — in ways that should become common practice.

Legislators met as a group for the first time last week, holding their opening day at the Augusta Civic Center, which unlike the State House has the space for social distancing.

It’s not the last time they’ll have to make concessions to the coronavirus. When they begin meeting next year, legislative committees plan, at least at first, to run those meetings virtually.

Committees typically spend weeks working through bills. For each bill, that process includes a public hearing, some of which draw dozens, if not hundreds of Maine residents to testify.

Even with the virus closing the Legislature’s proceedings to in-person participants, state law says the public still must have an opportunity to hear and take part in the meetings. Lawmakers, through an order passed on their first day, have committed to making that happen.

The public will be able to watch the meetings and give testimony through video conferencing, just as they will be able to listen in and testify over the phone. For those who are unable to use or uncomfortable with either of those options — and who in different times would have just attended the hearing in person — lawmakers are considering other avenues for participation as well.

That’s the right approach. While there will be no doubt be a learning curve as the Legislature conducts its business under new, trying circumstances, lawmakers appear to be focused on not letting COVID-19 influence government transparency — something state and local officials struggled with early in the pandemic.

And it could bring lasting, positive change. In prior sessions, Mainers who wanted to testify on a bill but couldn’t make it in person to the hearing in Augusta could only send in written testimony.

Now, if lawmakers are successful in their efforts, people from throughout the state will be able to watch the meetings from afar — when you could only stream audio before — and even testify, too.

One’s ability to participate in government shouldn’t depend on how far you live from the Capitol or whether you have reliable transportation — and it no longer will if video conferencing at the Legislature works as it should.

This session, with the help of the virus, will bring a new way of doing things in Augusta, and it may not always be seamless.

But if done well, it will break down barriers that previous kept people from getting involved in how their government works.

That’s a worthy goal, for this session — and sessions yet to come.


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