Maine GOP lawmakers want to strip Janet Mills of emergency power, let businesses reopen

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AUGUSTA — Minority Republicans in the Maine Legislature want to reconvene and end the coronavirus state of emergency declared by Gov. Janet Mills, which would allow all businesses to reopen but would require unlikely Democratic support.


The Democratic-led Legislature adjourned in mid-March shortly after Maine recorded its first cases of the virus after passing a pared-back $74 million spending plan and a separate package aimed squarely at the coronavirus that set aside money for the coronavirus fight. 


It was an example of deference to the Democratic governor in hard times, but Republicans are deferring no longer. On Saturday, the four Republican legislative leaders released a letter to the Democratic presiding officers asking them to call lawmakers back to Augusta to vote on ending the state of emergency declared by Mills in mid-March to manage the virus response.


Those emergency declarations are the way Mills and other governors have imposed restrictions to stem the virus’ spread. She has ordered Mainers to stay at home except for essential activities, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and closed many nonessential businesses.


Maine is one of 20 states to begin lifting restrictions on businesses after Mills allowed some — including salons and auto dealerships — to reopen on Friday. Another 30 states have not begun to lift their restrictions. Even states that have been more aggressive in lifting restrictions have left emergency declarations in place.


But the political situation in Maine has changed rapidly after the tourism industry assailed a gradual reopening plan released by Mills on Tuesday that would limit lodging into the summer and subject visitors to a 14-day quarantine requirement


The letter from Republican leaders said the plan “imposes an arbitrary set of rules for our businesses with no information on the scientific data used to create them.” Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said on Thursday that he has had calls from hotel owners whose phones are “ringing off the hook, but it’s people canceling.” 


Dow said society “learned to live with HIV” and will have to do the same with the coronavirus, though HIV is transmitted primarily through blood or sex while the coronavirus spreads through airborne droplets.


“We need to have a discussion about how we’re going to end this,” he said of the emergency.


Democratic legislative leaders have intended to return to Augusta this year to tackle business left unfinished when lawmakers adjourned in March. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, have the authority to call lawmakers back as long as the majorities of both parties agree to reconvene.


In a Thursday statement, Jackson said stripping Mills of her emergency power “would seriously jeopardize our public health.” Gideon said in a Friday statement that Maine should “gradually reopen our economy … while following public health guidelines.”


Spokespeople for Mills didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but the governor noted criticism at a news conference on Friday that she left without taking questions, saying there was “no simple solution” to the virus situation.


Republicans have also hit the Mills administration’s level of communication with lawmakers, saying commissioners have not directly addressed questions posed to them. The state had been holding briefings for the full Legislature and party caucuses until media outlets flagged some of them as violations of open meeting laws.

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