Coronavirus likely to make Maine lawmakers use the State House less in 2021
By Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News Staff
AUGUSTA — The worsening coronavirus pandemic will mostly keep the Maine Legislature out of the State House in 2021 as it dusts off a plan floated earlier this year to temporarily convene at the Augusta Civic Center.
A new crop of lawmakers will begin their official work when the Legislature convenes in December to seat new members, elect their leaders and pick a new secretary of state. They will meet in full for the first time since mid-March as the first cases of the virus were reported here.
As it was when Democrats and Republicans wrangled over the summer over returning to work, the Augusta Civic Center is the only place being considered for the Senate and House of Representatives to meet because it is not possible to space all lawmakers six feet apart — the recommended distance under coronavirus pandemic guidelines — in the traditional chambers.
The circumstances under which lawmakers will be meeting will be drastically different. In July, the number of active coronavirus cases hovered in the 400s and were concentrated in the state’s most populous counties. Now, there are three times that many cases and the virus has permeated more rural areas with community transmission happening throughout Maine.
Instead of finishing regular business, lawmakers will also have to craft a budget that addresses a large part of a projected $1.4 billion revenue shortfall over three years. A proposal on how to cover a third of that has been accepted by Gov. Janet Mills’ office, but lawmakers will have to sign off on measures such as hiring freezes and the use of reserve funds.
The city-owned arena was used by Senate Democrats recently to reelect their leadership team after adding one seat in the election for a 22-13 majority. House Democrats, who lost seats but still hold an 80-67 majority, spread throughout the State House to pick their new leaders.
Details of the plan are still being worked out and logistical hurdles remain, but committees will likely meet at the State House through virtual Zoom meetings that are open to the public with some lawmakers in committee rooms and some in other locations, said Mary-Erin Casale, a spokesperson for outgoing House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
Earl Kingsbury, the civic center’s director said conversations about the 2021 session have been ongoing for “the last month or two.” Nothing has yet been finalized and he said issues like how the Democratic governor’s executive order limiting indoor gatherings to 50 people would apply are still outstanding. A request for comment to Mills’ office was not returned.
How the public would participate is also a hurdle. Kingsbury said his staff was debating whether people would be able to use platforms like Zoom to sit in on meetings of the chambers or if that method could be used by lawmakers who are not comfortable being in the building. Final decisions will be up to the new wave of leaders, who will be finalized over the coming days.
Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, told Maine Public that investment in the State House and Civic Center’s internet will be needed to keep the public apprised while streaming multiple meetings at once, while House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said government must remain “accessible to the people that we represent.”