The basic foundation of our American system of government is that the people, through their elected representatives, create the laws and rules that governs our individual lives.

Through a lengthy process of public hearing, testimony, debate, deliberation, amendment and finally checks and balances with the Executive Branch, our laws are finally made. This process has existed for over 200 years, and for the most part has worked relatively well.

That being said, who could have predicted a worldwide pandemic that would turn all aspects of our world upside down — including how we make our laws.

I have participated in this lawmaking process as an elected representative (eight years) and a senator (four years) as well as a lobbyist for another 10 years. I can speak from experience that making laws in this process is messy.

Now try doing it with no in-person communication and no public oversight. Scary is not a strong enough word to describe a legislative body with no public in-person intervention from beginning to end.

I know legislative leaders are just trying to keep people safe.

But by deciding that the public cannot enter the State House — the people’s house — they have made it so there is no in-person testimony in the legislative committees, no in-person work sessions, no press conferences on the second floor of the State House. There is no lobbying in the halls by unpaid citizens or lobbyists. Everything is now done by Zoom!

What does that mean? That means that the segment of the population that doesn’t have the technology to video conference or the bandwidth to run Zoom is out of luck.

So far, the Legislature has held a few public hearings. At this point of the session, I have personally testified by Zoom twice in one committee. What is interesting is, the only people testifying are lobbyists or veteran activists; the public has been absent so far. It is an eerie process that feels more like a hospital without doctors and nurses than a Legislature.

The Legislature is full of well-meaning people that want to serve their community.

But there are also individuals who all of us would consider radical activists and whose positions and legislation represent a minority of Maine people. These activists are usually backed up by special interests with a vast knowledge and experience working the halls of the State House. This is prime time for them. No scrutiny, no reporters in the halls to catch wind of backroom deals.

Without every Maine citizen having equal access to the lawmaking process from beginning to end, special interests will own the process and the public will be in complete darkness.

Most of the legislative work is done after the committee public hearings and work sessions, when a bill finally reaches the floor of the House or Senate. What most people don’t know are the two parties caucuses discuss and debate these bills before they reach the floor. In some cases, these become partisan bills and may be part of a state, national party or special interest agenda. At this point, the individual Mainer can lose their say in the matter.

During these heated caucus debates, the individual positions of legislators become known. The legislators that introduced these bills know who opposes them. In the past, these caucus positions were impossible to keep secret. Within hours the people affected by the bill could lobby their elected officials on both sides of the issue.

Now, sponsors of the bill will inform special interest groups who to target, but the public won’t know. These groups will pound individual legislators on their side of the issue, demanding partisan allegiance. As a result, our laws will be made in caucus, behind closed doors.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders could choose to slow down the process.  We have been told the pandemic will be under control in less than a year. Why not open things up when it is safer and stop fast-tracking the more controversial legislation?

In a worst case scenario, the Legislature could complete its work on the budget and unanimous committee bills — and leave the remainder of their work until the second session.

David Trahan of Waldoboro, a former state legislator, is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of that organization.

 

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column erroneously said the requirement to post public hearings two weeks before they are scheduled has not been followed this legislative session. The two-week requirement is still in effect.)


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