The Maine Legislature’s tenure at the Augusta Civic Center is rapidly coming to a close, following new COVID-19 guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the administration of Gov. Janet Mills.
Lawmakers are expected to convene at the city-owned sports and entertainment venue again on Wednesday, but State House leaders are now hinting the Legislature will return to its official home at the State House the next time they meet.
The Legislature needs to finish its work by mid-June to comply with the state constitution but could reconvene in another special session this summer or fall. The second regular session of the current Legislature is set to start in January.
Mills announced Friday that the state would conform to newly issued federal CDC guidelines on masks, and the Legislature’s presiding officers, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, have said their staffs are “working out the logistics for the remainder of the session.”
This Legislature, the 130th, became the first to meet outside of the confines of the Capitol dome when they were sworn in at the 39,000-square-foot civic center on Dec. 2, 2020. The historic proceeding featured a video-streamed address from Mills, who at the time was quarantining after she had been deemed a close contact with a member of her security detail who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Because Mills could not be there in person, the Legislature was sworn in by Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Andrew Mead.
“The plan was always to return to the State House when it was safe for everyone – the public, members of the press, legislative staff, and lawmakers,” Jackson and Fecteau said in a joint statement issued after Mills announced she was rolling back social distancing and masking requirements late last week. “With today’s announcement, we are looking forward to working with our colleagues to review the new guidelines and finalize plans to eventually reopen the State House.”
What that means exactly was uncertain late Friday as legislative staff continued to review rapidly changing state and federal guidelines. The State House has remained closed to the public since early in the pandemic with only lawmakers, their staff, essential contract workers, and officially credentialed members of the press corps allowed into the building. Whether the public would regain full or limited access to the building when it is reopened remained unclear.
The rules for the State House are ultimately set by the 10-member Legislative Council, which includes Jackson and Fecteau, as well as the majority and minority leaders in both the House and Senate. As of Friday the council was not scheduled to meet again until May 27. Democrats hold six of the 10 seats on the governing panel.
For months some Republicans have both bridled at and defied the restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the disease. On Friday they again called for Mills to move rapidly to align Maine with the new federal guidelines.
Since the start of the pandemic, at least one Republican staff member and one Republican lawmaker, Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, have contracted the virus. Last week, House and Senate floor sessions at the civic center planned for May 12 were postponed after two other lawmakers, who were not identified, tested positive for the virus in unrelated cases, according to a memo from Fecteau and Jackson.
John Bott, a spokesman for House Republicans, on Friday reiterated the caucus position that the Legislature should return to doing its business before the public in the State House as soon as possible.
“For months, House Republicans have called for safely convening the Legislature at the people’s house, the State House, instead of renting the Civic Center at taxpayer expense,” Bott said. “Recent CDC guidance strengthens our argument.” Among other things, that guidance advised that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to follow social distancing or facial covering requirements either indoors or outside.
Fecteau and Jackson said Democratic leaders have acted to protect the health and safety of their colleagues, their staff and the public.
“Nothing about the legislative session this year has been ideal,” Fecteau and Jackson said in a joint statement. “Like so many Maine businesses, the Legislature has had to innovate to find new ways to work this year. Though it hasn’t been easy for everyone, the steps we’ve taken to reduce the spread of this virus have allowed vaccination rates to outpace the spread of the disease. Although we’re still working out the logistics for the remainder of the session, I know my colleagues and I are looking forward to returning to the State House in a way that is safe for everyone.”