A sign posted Tuesday reminds people to wear masks at the Maine State House, where the pandemic will be a constant presence during the upcoming legislative session. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

State lawmakers are proposing a variety of bills in reaction to the coronavirus and the toll it is taking on Maine, with measures that range from protecting the rights of COVID-19 patients to helping businesses hardest hit by pandemic-related restrictions.

Republican lawmakers, who have been agitating for months, also want to curtail Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ executive power and her administration’s response to the pandemic under a civil state of emergency that has been in effect since March.

Other bills in the mix focus on COVID-19 vaccination, either by setting vaccine policies into law or by prohibiting mandates that would require vaccination.

In all, at least 20 pandemic-related bills have been filed, while an additional five bills address COVID-19 and public education. Maine lawmakers are not alone in pursuing coronavirus-related legislation. More than 3,445 bills have been brought forward in state legislatures since the onset of the pandemic last year, according to a database created by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in states that have legislative sessions just getting underway or set to begin soon are adding to that list for 2021.

In Maine, Rep. Jon Connor, R-Lewiston, wants to eliminate the sales tax on restaurant meals and lodging. Connor’s proposal would extend that exemption until 12 months after Maine’s civil state of emergency ends. Rep. Bill Pluecker, an independent from Warren, wants support for Maine farms to help with pandemic-related food insecurity. Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, wants the Legislature to have oversight of how state government spends federal COVID-19 relief funds. Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, wants a COVID-19 review commission to be established.

In addition, Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, wants to eliminate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in Maine on people of color. In June, public health data showed that Maine had the worst racial disparity in the nation for COVID-19 infections, with Blacks contracting the virus at a rate 20 times higher than white Mainers.

Details on Talbot Ross’ bill were not yet available. Other Democratic leaders are also looking to address equity issues related to COVID-19.

Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, is sponsoring a three-pronged bill that would ensure no Mainer who wants to be vaccinated is turned away because of costs or lack of insurance. The measure also would require the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to provide six-week updates to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on the progress the state is making in vaccinating historically vulnerable populations, including low-income Mainers and people of color.

Other vaccine-related bills include efforts by Republicans to prevent any mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for at least five years so the safety of the vaccine can be confirmed. Another bill being offered by Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, would make Maine people over 70 years old a top priority for receiving the vaccine.

Libby said the overall approach to the pandemic by majority Democrats is to be supportive of the actions taken by Mills and her administration. Although cases continue to surge in Maine, the state still has the second lowest case count per 100,000 citizens in the U.S.

“While we may have some disagreements with certain parts of the administration’s response, our caucus on the whole is very supportive of what’s been done to date to protect public health,” Libby said, “while balancing that with the need for economic recovery.”

Libby said legislation being proposed by Democrats is largely geared toward “ensuring those who have been impacted by COVID-19 have the supports they need to fully recover and continue on.”

Republican bills, in general, look to protect businesses, jobs and the economy, while recognizing the dangers to public health COVID-19 presents, said House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford.

Dillingham, for example, has a bill that would give businesses, municipalities and nonprofits liability protection from COVID-19 related lawsuits – mirroring protections Congress has considered and likely will take up again.

Dillingham said Republicans hope to push back some against of the pandemic restrictions put in place under the governor’s executive orders and reestablish the Legislature’s role in pandemic policy making. She and other Republican leaders have said they want to reestablish their voices in the decision-making process for COVID-19 policies.

“Our caucus’s position is to make sure businesses are protected, both retroactively for what they have already suffered and going forward, while also protecting people,” Dillingham said. “We have got to find that balance.”

Other Republican bills include measures that would waive fines or fees imposed on businesses that violate pandemic-related restrictions.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, also is a primary sponsor of COVID-19 related bills, including one that aims to protect the rights of COVID-19 patients. Details on that bill are expected to be released early next week, a spokeswoman for Jackson said. The Senate president also has a bill aimed at helping tasting rooms and restaurants that have been hard hit by pandemic-related restrictions, although the details have not been published yet.

Republican bills to suspend or temporarily eliminate sales taxes also are being proposed, but they could face a challenging path forward in a year in which the Legislature must approve a new and balanced budget for state government. A pandemic-related state revenue shortfall estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion for the next fiscal year will make already difficult budget negotiations more challenging. Maine’s current two-year budget is about $8 billion.

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