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Maine Legislative Leaders Working To Keep Public Health, Access In Balance

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta in Dec. 2018.

Over the next couple of weeks, the members of the new Legislature will elect their House and Senate leaders, and will grapple with some major challenges facing the next session. The first task at hand: how to conduct allow public participation in the midst of a pandemic.

The 186 state representatives and senators that take office next month are poised to choose their respective party leaders over the next week. Those who are likely to continue in a leadership role say they are committed to ensuring that members of the public can not only observe but also take part in the legislative process.

“We need to make sure that we maintain our form of government at a very transparent level and that we make sure we are accessible to the people that we represent,” says Republican House Leader Kathy Dillingham of Oxford, who is seeking reelection to that post.

Dillingham says public access will be a challenge given public health policies that limit the size of indoor gatherings.

Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash, a Democrat, says part of the solution may be taking hearing testimony via the internet.

“First and foremost make sure the public has every opportunity safely to not only see what is going with the government but to interact with the government,” he says.

Jackson says it may require a significant investment in broadband capacity to allow for access by the public to committee meetings as well as floor action of the House and Senate. Assistant Democratic House Leader Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford, who is running for speaker, says lawmakers will also have to set aside political differences in the wake of a contentious legislative session and election.

“Now more than ever we have people who are really hemmed in on being rather partisan and it’s my hope that Maine can lead the way in repairing the public discourse we have with our neighbors,” he says.

Assistant Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who is running for minority leader, says he hopes Fecteau and other Democrats will really talk with their Republican colleagues and seek their opinions on issues of policy.

“It can’t be a one-way street of when they have the conversation this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it and what do you think. They forget to put in that what do you think part,” he says.

Senate Democrats caucus Thursday night to choose their leaders. Other caucuses are scheduled over the next week. The new Legislature convenes Dec. 2.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.