Kentucky lawmakers want the power Maine’s Legislature took for granted

By Stacey Guerin

There’s an interesting constitutional battle playing out in Kentucky. With one of the most restrictive limitations on legislative sessions in the country, the commonwealth’s lawmakers are hoping voters approve a constitutional amendment for something we take for granted here in Maine — the right to assemble.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Kentucky is one of 14 states where the legislature — General Assembly in this case — needs approval from the governor to call a special session. This doesn’t include the General Assembly’s first or second regular sessions, which are constitutionally defined with a set duration. And when they do get that approval from their governor, the special session’s scope is limited to whatever topic is approved by the same.

The Republican proponents of the constitutional amendment are asking Kentucky voters to approve it because the General Assembly was unable by law to convene during the pandemic to rein in some of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID-19 policies. And since Kentucky law bars any session after the spring’s adjournment until the end of the year without gubernatorial approval, Beshear demonstrated this raw power last December when he prevented lawmakers from convening to deal with redistricting as candidate filing deadlines were nearing.

That’s a lot of power for one branch to have over another for eight months of the year — it’s obvious why Kentucky’s governor doesn’t like the idea of giving it up. Can you imagine, though, if Gov. Janet Mills had that much power over Maine’s co-equal branch of government?

Well, believe it not, we actually let it happen.

Maine is one of 36 other states in the nation that has a dual process to call a special session. In most states, legislative leaders must agree and a majority of members must sign on. Here, the governor has the power to do it but so does the Maine Legislature itself.

Upon agreement by both the Senate president and House speaker and a polled majority of the members in each party, our independent legislative branch is free to convene at our will. What’s more important, however, is having the grit to do it when necessary.

In 2020, Maine’s Democratic-led 129th Legislature granted Mills extraordinary emergency powers by the time we adjourned sine die in March of that year. The pandemic was upon us, and we entrusted Mills with operational authority to manage the coming crisis.

And yet after thousands of phone calls, emails and letters from constituents pleading for help during the early weeks and months of the pandemic, issues regarding our state’s health response soon became apparent and the Legislature needed to convene to address them.

During that entire time, Mills had minimal communication with the Legislature, particularly Republicans. We asked for briefings, data regarding COVID-19 and information about the thousands who were stuck in a paralyzed unemployment system. And we continually asked to be included in her reopening plans as thousands of businesses were being assaulted through what appeared to be a completely unnecessary lockdown. She refused.

While all of this was happening, Maine’s Legislature already had the power lawmakers are seeking in Kentucky to do something about it. Instead, Democratic leaders didn’t have the grit to use it and gave that power away to the executive branch.

When the Legislature held a public hearing in March 2021 on 14 bills limiting executive authority during states of civil emergency, nearly 400 written pieces of testimony were submitted in support. But what the people of Maine really told us is that we didn’t do our jobs during the shutdown. It was clearly due to the decisions of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House.

So, yes, we have the power so many lawmakers in Kentucky are pleading with their voters to get. In looking back, it’s apparent that Democrats took it for granted and did not allow us to do our job. This should never happen again.

Guerin represents District 10 in the Maine Senate. She is the Senate Republican lead for the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee.

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