Lawmakers consider bills to curtail Mills' powers during state of emergency

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Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Mar. 29—Republicans lawmakers riled by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' use of executive authority to manage Maine's response to the COVID-19 pandemic are offering more than a dozen bills that would limit a governor's civil emergency powers or require greater legislative oversight.

The bills, 14 in all, were heard in the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee Monday, just weeks after both the House and Senate voted against ending the civil state of emergency. which Mills has extended repeatedly.

That the governor is overstretching her authority, acting as a dictator or imposing unconstitutional restrictions on citizens are claims that were made repeatedly over about three hours of online video testimony. The committee will next meet in a work session, where the bills will likely be cobbled into a single piece of legislation, before the panel votes on its recommendation to support or oppose the changes.

But others Monday argued the Legislature needs to tread lightly in any effort to constrain the executive branch and praised Mills for the outcomes Maine has seen compared with other states over the course of the pandemic.

"No matter the efficacy of top-down mandates, without the people's alliance, no battle against an enemy seen or unseen can be victorious," state Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, a sponsor of one of the measures said. "It is our job as legislators to uphold our form of government and refuse to abdicate our constitutional roles in acquiescence to the chief executive and a group of unelected advisers."

The bills before the committee would do a range of things, from requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to extend a civil state of emergency to limiting the duration of a declared emergency or limiting its continuation. The measures all have an uphill climb in a Legislature controlled by majority Democrats, who have generally praised Mills' response to the pandemic.

Since March of 2020 Mills has renewed Maine's civil state of emergency every 30 days, allowing her to change or add temporary legal requirements into state law by executive order in her efforts to protect public health and preserve the economy.

"Maine has weathered this terrible storm far better than almost any other state," Jerry Reid, an attorney and chief legal counsel to Mills, told the committee. Reid said that success was largely a credit to the people of Maine who have "overwhelmingly shown themselves to be resilient and responsible."

He also said Maine was regularly ranked among the top states in its response to COVID-19 on many measures and that was also because of the "foresight of the Maine Legislature in granting this governor and her predecessors necessary authority to respond to an emergency quickly when lives are at stake."

Reid said Mills sole focus has been on "saving lives and saving livelihoods."

Maine is also not an outlier in continuing with an ongoing state of emergency or with ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, according to Reid's written testimony. Forty-eight states have a state of emergency in effect and 44 states, including Maine, are employing statewide COVID mitigation strategies, Reid wrote.

On Monday Maine had the fourth lowest death rate among U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia and was ranked as the four lowest for COVID-19 infection rates per 1 million residents, according the Kaiser Family Foundation's COVID tracking web site. Maine's unemployment rate in February was 4.8 percent, the 21st lowest in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But those supporting the bills said Mills has made unchecked restrictions on their lives that were more damaging than the virus.

Keim read a letter from Kristen Chapman of Sumner, who told lawmakers because of restrictions and confusion earlier in the pandemic around oral surgery and the use of general anesthesia, Chapman's 16-year-old daughter had to endure a painful extraction of two impacted wisdom teeth and a long delay in the needed removal of the remaining two. At one point the girl was unable to eat solid food for over a month, Chapman wrote.

"We could not have imagined that a declaration of emergency would last so long, resulting in the kind of treatment expected in impoverished countries," Chapman wrote. "Under this prolonged unending state of emergency, medical and dental care was deferred to the point that what was intended to protect the public actually became harmful to the citizens."

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, the Senate chair of the committee, said arguments that the Legislature had abdicated its powers to Mills were unfounded. He pointed out that the Legislature, by a simple majority vote in both bodies, could end a state of emergency but had chosen not to.

Baldacci also noted that citizens' voices were being heard by the Legislature, as was the case Monday as dozens testified and others offered written testimony on the bills before the committee.

"This is a great exercise in democracy," Baldacci said. "Because we are all here together as Democrats, Republicans, independents talking about how best to serve our government. That itself, being part of the process is a success."

Baldacci also said Mills was doing an "excellent" job in her response to the pandemic but he welcomed an ongoing conversation as the bills moved toward a work session in the days ahead.

"I do agree the Legislature needs to more fully assert its role, but that's not an issue with the governor," Baldacci said.