Amid a pandemic and an economic downturn, lawmakers will return to Augusta in January with a list of priorities that span topics such as healthcare, climate change and the power of the executive branch.
And while Democrats and Republicans have different goals, they agree on two primary items – balancing the state’s budget, which has a $150 million deficit, and agreeing on a new two-year spending plan.
“We have to address that with obvious care and caution,” said House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy (D-Old Town). “With the pandemic, we have a lot of budgetary concerns.”
The legislative session kicked off Dec. 2 with the swearing-in of new lawmakers, but committees won’t meet to discuss bills until mid-to-late January. The deadline to submit requests for legislation to be considered was Friday.
As a former member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, Dunphy said all options for closing the budget gap should be considered, from not filling open positions to cutting programs to raising taxes. She said there could be robust discussions on raising the gas tax or sales tax.
Republicans favor spending cuts, said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot (R-Augusta). He said tax increases aren’t sustainable and noted the state budget under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage was significantly less ($7.2 billion) than the current $7.98 billion, two-year plan under Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat. The governor is expected to release the new budget on Jan. 8.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “The reality is we’re in really unprecedented times.”
With the budget as a common goal, another through-line of the 2021 session will be COVID-19. The pandemic means lawmakers will conduct much of their business through online hearings and work sessions, rarely meeting in full session for at least the first two months, said Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby (D-Lewiston). It also increases the importance of making sure the public can fully participate, Pouliot said, and is spurring Republicans to re-examine the power of the executive branch of government.
House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham (R-Oxford) said she expects several bills will be introduced to scale back the power of the governor’s office to issue executive orders. Mills has issued more than 60 orders since the pandemic began. Dillingham is frustrated at not being invited to participate in meetings where decisions on mask mandates or closing restaurants at 9 p.m. were made. She would like to ensure that the Legislature can exercise its power as a co-equal branch of government.
“I don’t know how we go forth in government if the executive is not going to speak to the minority,” she said.
House and Senate Republicans twice rejected calls by Democrats to return to session this summer after the Legislature adjourned early in March. Republicans said they wanted assurances from Democrats that the session would be narrow in scope, while some Democrats favored consideration of the hundreds of bills left on the table when they adjourned. Ultimately, they were unable to agree.
Dillingham said she will introduce a bill that calls for legislative approval of executive orders after a certain period of days – possibly 30 or 60. She also wants to require a two-thirds majority to approve an extension.
Legislative leaders say long-term goals include addressing climate change, expanding healthcare and making sure more of the state has high-speed internet.
Libby said Democrats will continue to focus on healthcare access and affordability, which he believes is particularly important this session because of the pandemic.
“In the midst of the greatest health crisis in a generation, that remains a priority,” he said.
Those reforms include changing Maine’s individual and small group insurance markets in hopes of getting more people covered at a lower cost, he said. For those who don’t qualify for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, Democrats want to help more Mainers get federal subsidies through the Affordable Care Act. In addition, they want to ensure that programs created because of COVID-19 continue, such as better access to COVID testing, treatment for everyone regardless of their ability to pay and financial support for those who lost their jobs, he said.
Democrats will also look to implement recommendations from the Maine Climate Council to make it easier for the state to generate its own power and move away from fossil fuels, Libby and Dunphy said. Earlier this month the council released a 124-page report that lays out a four-year plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
Those climate goals are gaining urgency as more people consider moving to Maine.
“The pandemic has caused people from across the country to look to Maine as a place to live and raise a family,” Libby said.
Pouliot, a real estate agent who’s heard from out-of-state clients looking to move here, said he too wants to consider how Maine can be a welcoming place for working adults. He said Republicans are willing to invest in high-speed internet that will benefit schoolchildren and their parents who are already working from home, as well as those who want to move to Maine.
“It’s a way for Maine to grow the population of working adults,” he said.
For existing Maine businesses, Dillingham said it will be important for lawmakers to see if there’s a way to help them replace lost revenue and aid the unemployed. She wants to tackle the lack of affordable housing and support the mental health system that’s helping people cope during the pandemic.
If Maine gets more federal stimulus money directed toward businesses, Libby said he believes there is a role for lawmakers to make sure it is allocated fairly.
“I think those looking for financial assistance should be required to open their books to show us the impact on their business since the pandemic began,” he said. “A company with 10 percent growth year over year should not be prioritized over a company whose doors have been closed since March.”
Libby also said Democrats want to support what he called “silver lining” innovations by businesses that have done things differently because of the pandemic. That could include making sure no regulatory hurdles are preventing businesses from continuing to encourage remote work or home delivery services.
Dunphy said there’s also a lot of energy around social justice issues, including addressing racial injustice, problems in the juvenile justice system and a lack of affordable housing.
Pouliot and Dillingham encourage citizens to get involved and remain involved — by participating in public hearings or reaching out directly to lawmakers.
“The financial austerity this session is going to be key,” Pouliot said. “Public participation is key. Where we’re not in the (State House) together it gives them a lack of access.”