AUGUSTA – A window of safety on COVID-19 or a window to spend Maine government into deep financial trouble? That is the question on the minds of many after Senate President Troy Jackson made a questionable claim this week in the wrangling over bringing the Maine Legislature back to conduct business.
There has been no state data released in Maine projects the month of August to provide a “window” of safety on COVID-19 for at-risk populations and Governor Janet Mills is not taking any action that suggests August will see Maine open the door open to large indoor gatherings. That reality didn’t stop Maine Senate President Troy Jackson from claiming this week that there will be such a window to justify his demand for a virtually unlimited legislative session. The claim by Jackson also appears to fly in the face of Democratic communications assaults suggesting they are the party of “science” as they assail their political opposition.
Jackson’s unlimited session, Republicans counter, could lead to a massive spending increase and worsen Maine’s budget crisis. Republicans want to come back to amend Gov. Mills’ emergency powers, deal with COVID-19 related issues, such as Maine’s broken unemployment system, and appropriate federal COVID-19 relief funds that had gone largely unspent until this week.
Senate President Jackson, Speaker Sara Gideon and Democrats are insisting on an unlimited session, refusing to negotiate on a limited scope of work for the session, which means the session could include over 400 existing bills totaling nearly $1 billion in new spending. New bills could also be introduced. This would happen with a looming state budget crisis as a backdrop to the new spending.
In a written statement, Jackson said, “Right now, Mainers all across the state are looking at lawmakers for relief. The latest COVID-19 data indicates that we have a window to reconvene in a way that doesn’t jeopardize staff or communities all across the state.”
The joint statement from Jackson and Gideon was released July 16th, the day after Gideon’s win in the U.S. Senate primary. Until Gideon had secured victory in the primary, she largely ignored calls for the legislature to return, facing a daily barrage of criticism that thousands of Mainers were suffering, unable to work or access unemployment benefits and sundry other issues for weeks or months and that she was demonstrating little concern for their plight.
Jackson’s claim that there is a window of safety on COVID in Maine does not appear to be based in any data or action from the Mills administration, but more on a desire to win the public relations battle for an unlimited session. The Mills administration has not lifted the 50-person gathering restriction and has not hinted at data suggesting such a window as Senate President Jackson predicts.
That has left many wondering: Did Troy Jackson or someone on his staff just make up this window of safety claim? If Maine has a window of safety on COVID, why would restrictions on ordinary Mainers be left in place with the Mills Administration cracking down with harsher restrictions on face coverings and heavy restrictions on school reopenings?
Senate President Troy Jackson’s Chief of Staff seemed to be in a mood to mock Republicans Thursday after his office released the unsourced claim about a window of safety. During official state office hours, Jackson’s Chief of Staff took to the Senate Republicans Facebook page to post GIFS mocking them on a post about bringing back the legislature, as if his team had somehow outsmarted them. That post from Senate Republicans McCollister mocked, however, was a call for a legislative session of limited scope to deal with COVID-19 related issues – consistent with the Senate Republican position since the beginning of the dispute.
A review of the Maine CDC’s “Reopening Gate Metrics”, published to show the public the data the Mills Administration is relying upon for reopening decisions, shows Maine’s metrics mostly flat, with some metrics similar to time periods in June when Jackson, Gideon and Mills were refusing to lift restrictions on Maine people or bring back the legislature to amend Mills’ emergency powers.
“Conducting a lengthy special session without the presence of the public and their advocates,” said Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow, “would unnecessarily exclude Maine citizens from a fundamentally democratic process. The more work we take on in such a special session, the more business would be conducted without appropriate public input and participation.”
“Two months ago, we called to amend the Executive’s emergency powers to re-establish our co-equal branches of government,” said House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham. “Without an agreement to address this issue and focus our scope of work specifically on the impact an ongoing state of emergency is having on Mainers, House Republicans will not support a special session. We cannot say, on the one hand, that groups over 50 can’t safely meet, and then convene 186 members of the Legislature to take up non-emergency issues.”
“All across Maine, businesses, organizations and individuals have sacrificed weddings, funerals, careers and lifetimes of investment in building a future for their families,” said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake, “all because these things are not essential in a time of statewide emergency. It would be irresponsible for the Legislature to ignore the same restrictions to meet and deliberate beyond what is absolutely necessary.”
“In the midst of a civil emergency, we are not going to consider some 400 bills, totaling close to $1 billion in new spending, when Mainers are struggling to fight a pandemic,” said Assistant House Republican Leader Harold ‘Trey’ Stewart. “In light of the ban on large gatherings, the Legislature should only convene for the limited purpose of dealing with emergency items.”
As the impasse continues with Democrats pushing for an unlimited session and Republicans insisting on a limited scope of work, it appears the onus is on Senate President Troy Jackson and his Chief of Staff to shed some light on the mysterious COVID safety window Jackson says exists.
To win the debate, Jackson and his team are going to have to explain how the legislature should be able to conduct unlimited non-emergency business without public involvement during the window they claim exists, especially given the number of older and at-risk lawmakers and staff Jackson would be forcing into close quarters for an extended period of time.
At the same time, Jackson will need to justify allowing Governor Janet Mills to continue to heavily restrict the freedoms of Maine people, small businesses and controversial restrictions on school-aged children as schools reopen in late August and early September.
Until then, the claims that reliance upon the science of COVID-19 is the supreme factor in the decision-making process of the Mills administration and leadership in the House and Senate Democratic caucus won’t have much credibility with those who look at state government with a skeptical eye.