Lawmakers kicked off the second session of the 130th Legislature on Wednesday with a debate over whether its standing committees should meet remotely or in person during the pandemic.

Both the House and the Senate met in person Wednesday, but leaders plan to have committees meet remotely, at least through the end of January. In the coming months, lawmakers are expected to consider a supplemental budget from Gov. Janet Mills, including what to do with a projected surplus of $822 million, and will take up another 350 bills that were either carried over from last year or approved for emergency consideration by legislative leaders.

The session, scheduled to conclude on April 20, will take place against the backdrop of the upcoming gubernatorial election, where former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who served two full terms, has re-emerged to challenge Mills, a former attorney general who served under LePage.

LePage has criticized Mills’ handling of the pandemic without laying out exactly what he would have done differently. Mills and Democrats have pointed out that Maine has been one of the safest states throughout the pandemic and has a strong budget outlook, despite closing down a large part of the economy early in the pandemic when little was known about the virus and when vaccines were not available.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, speaks in favor of holding remote committee hearings on Zoom during a debate on rules for the session, on the first day of the 130th Legislature’s second session on Wednesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

On Wednesday, Senate and House Republicans pushed back on approving temporary rules requiring committees to meet remotely, arguing that older constituents without computers or high-speed internet connections are being shut out of deliberations. They also said remote meetings have made it difficult for lawmakers to get to know each other and reach compromises through informal, in-person conversations.

Senate Republican Leader Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, said lawmakers should be meeting in person, but also should allow the public to comment via video or phone. He said many of his constituents, such as teachers, first responders, grocery store clerks and other service providers, are going to work, and so, too, should lawmakers, especially since some lawmakers have never met colleagues in person.

“Why are we more special than the person who served us at the restaurants we ate at last or the person who last cut our hair or the person who bagged our groceries? We are not,” Timberlake said. “We would be wise to learn a lesson from the people who sent us here. Maybe it’s time we start leading the way.”

State Rep. Chad Wayne Grignon, R-Athens, and Beth A. O’Connor, R-Berwick, sit at their desks on the House floor chatting on the first day of the 130th Legislature’s second session Wednesday at the State House. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend using face shields as a substitute for masks as a safeguard against COVID-19. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

‘NEW CLASS WARFARE’

Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, broke with his party to oppose remote meetings, characterizing them as a “new class warfare” between white-collar workers and others earning minimum wage or working in service jobs who don’t have the option of working from home.

But Senate Democrats beat back the opposition with a 17-12 vote mostly along party lines. Five senators were absent. Democrats defended remote meetings, saying they are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, which is filling hospitals and overwhelming health care workers.

Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, who referenced his experience working in dangerous conditions as a logger, noted that hospitalizations and transmission of COVID-19 are still at or near record levels.

“If any of you think I wanted to serve as the Senate president under a system like this, you are crazy,” he said. “But I am going to continue to stay the course because I feel very strongly I don’t want to put anyone else’s life at risk.

Jackson also pushed back on concerns that people were being excluded, saying that he has received increased participation from his constituents over the last two years in Northern Aroostook County, which is about five hours from Augusta. He said the Legislature could switch to hybrid meetings once transmission levels and hospitalizations drop.

Just inside the House chamber, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, left, introduces himself to recently elected Rep. Raegan F. LaRochelle, D-Augusta, on her first day serving. Martin, a former speaker of the House who was first elected to the Legislature in 1964, has served over 50 years in non-consecutive terms in the House and Senate. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Maybe we will get to where we can take our masks off again and have in-person hybrid meetings, but I don’t think the time is now,” said Jackson, adding that leaders would reassess later this month. “It’s worse than ever.”

A similar debate happened in the House, which voted 73-53 in support of the remote committee meetings, again mostly along party lines with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

Also Wednesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed Andrew Butcher as president of the Maine Connectivity Authority, which is charged with allocating $150 million in federal funding to expand broadband service throughout the state.

While legislators will consider hundreds of bills this session, Mills must decide the fate of two bills that have been sitting on her desk since the last session and present a supplemental budget buoyed by a projected surplus of $822 million.

Mills has until the end of Jan. 8 to decide whether to sign a bill sponsored by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, that would allow some agricultural workers to unionize and collectively bargain things like wages, hours and other working conditions.

She also must decide the fate of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, to form a 13-member commission, including five legislators, to study whether Maine should re-establish parole, which allows for the release of someone from prison before their sentence is complete. Maine is one of 16 states not to offer discretionary parole.

One of the biggest topics for the upcoming session is what to do with a projected surplus of $822 million. Both parties seem interested in returning some of that money to taxpayers, but it’s unclear how they will do that.

Senate Republican leader Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, speaks against holding remote committee hearings on Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic during a debate on rules for the session. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

BUDGET SURPLUS DEBATE

Republicans have called for income tax cuts, while Mills has expressed support for “direct financial relief” to Mainers struggling to pay increased prices for electricity, home heating fuel and groceries, though she has not offered any details.

Mills said in an interview with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce that aired Tuesday that the projected surplus was a combination of belt tightening early in the pandemic, including curtailments on hiring and travel, and a significant influx of federal funding to individuals, businesses and state and local governments.

With the state’s Rainy Day Fund approaching $492 million, Mills said she’s open to giving some money back to Mainers but would do so cautiously.

“I’m a realist,” Mills said. “I served on the appropriations committee for four years and I know how things can change. I’m cautious about what we do with that revenue forecast. But I’m anxious to also give money back to the taxpayers of Maine in one form or another because I think they deserve it.”

The Constitution limits the second session to bills relating to budget, emergency legislation, bills from the governor, legislation referred to committees for study during the first session and legislation from citizen initiatives.

One of the topics expected to be addressed by lawmakers is reforming the state’s child protection services, which has been subject to investigations following the death of four children last year. Murder or manslaughter charges were filed in three of those deaths.

In at least one of those cases, the death of 3-year-old Maddox Williams in Stockton Springs, the family had prior contact with child protective services, court documents revealed.

Some lawmakers are looking to give more oversight power to the state’s child welfare ombudsman and legislators, while others have offered a separate five-point plan to address child safety by tackling substance use and poverty. A spokesperson for Mills said the governor is eying her own proposal but did not provide details.

This session will also include a pilot program to add racial impact statements on seven of bills. And lawmakers are looking at ways to increase the supply of affordable housing. The housing recommendations include eliminating single-family zoning, among other things, which could ignite a debate over local control.

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