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Gov. Mills rebuffs Republican criticism over administration’s pandemic response

By Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald | May 05, 2020

Gov. Janet Mills is disputing claims by Republican lawmakers that she failed to communicate with them as her Democratic administration formulated its response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine, including declaring a civil emergency and preparing a plan for reopening the economy.

The governor’s press secretary, Lindsay Crete, said Monday that Mills has had numerous conversations with leaders of both parties. She provided a copy of an April 27 letter Mills sent to the Legislature describing an online portal that the Department of Economic and Community Development had established specifically for lawmakers to submit comments and ideas for a safe reopening.

“Her administration’s goal has always been, and continues to be, to listen to the Legislature, both Democrats and Republicans alike, as much as possible amid a constantly changing and dangerous public health crisis,” Crete said in an email.

Over the weekend, Republicans sent a letter to the Legislature’s presiding officers requesting that they call the lawmakers back in to rescind some of the powers they granted to Mills in a bill passed in March to address the pandemic. The letter cited their concerns about the plan’s impact on the state’s economy and their constituents, but revoking Mills’ emergency powers is likely to be a futile effort because of the complexity of the process and Democratic opposition.

Republicans and their leaders have been agitating since Mills announced the state’s plan for a phased reopening of Maine’s economy early last week, saying they were not consulted on the plan and should have been.

Following her announcement, Mills acknowledged opposition to the plan and said she recognized those divisions.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, the Senate’s assistant minority leader, said Republican lawmakers felt they were without any power to help their constituents and that they have valuable expertise Mills should have sought out as she formed her reopening plan.

“We haven’t been involved, our leadership, nor anybody has been involved,” Timberlake said on WVOM talk radio Monday. “You have a lot of people that serve in the Legislature that are doctors and lawyers and businessmen and farmers – some of us are businessmen and farmers – that have some expertise in how to deal with crisis situations and how to deal with things. It might be nice if they were involved and maybe they can help you.”

Crete said Mills has had conversations with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, “solicited their input and continues to listen to their feedback.” Crete said Mills’ staff was also working hard to get answers to lawmakers for their constituents.

Mills was given broader executive powers after declaring a civil state of emergency. Those powers include the ability to change various deadlines in law or suspend them. She also has the power to issue executive orders that have the force of law, including her orders regarding which businesses can be open and in what capacity.

Neither the House nor the Senate took roll call votes on the emergency measure, which was passed unanimously in March by both bodies on simple voice votes or “under the hammer” in legislative parlance.

Republicans said the creation of an online portal for suggestions from lawmakers made it seem as though Mills was grasping at straws without a clear plan for reopening the economy.

“That put our caucus over the edge,” Timberlake said. “I don’t know of anybody she consulted with.”

He said it’s frustrating for lawmakers when they have no answers for the people who elected them, noting that the 14 Republican senators in the Senate minority represent about 500,000 Maine residents.

But Republicans are unlikely to get their Democratic colleagues to go along with a special lawmaking session designed to revoke some of Mills’ powers or force her to end the current civil state of emergency. For the Legislature to call itself back into session, a majority of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate would have to agree to come back, and the Speaker of the House and Senate President, both Democrats, also would have to agree.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, both said over the weekend that they are not prepared to call a special session to end the civil state of emergency. Jackson said doing so would also jeopardize federal relief funds that are coming to the state to help it respond and recover from the pandemic.

The governor can also call the Legislature back into special session.

Mills has previously said she intends to call the Legislature back to work once it is safe for them to be together again.

“The governor has said repeatedly that the pandemic is not political,” Crete said. “It is far harder to govern than it is to blast out press releases.

“She continues to welcome constructive feedback from across the state as we address serious economic challenges and protect public health and safety. She also continues to engage with lawmakers and hopes Republicans will choose to be constructive partners instead of partisan adversaries.”

 

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