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House Minority Leader: Republicans Taking Aim At Janet Mills' Emergency Powers

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Members of the Maine house stand prior to taking the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. The Legislature convened at the venue to allow for social distancing by the members.

The new Maine Legislature convened this week and formally elected their leaders.

One of them, House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about her party’s priorities.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: You’re a veteran lawmaker, so I’m curious what it was like meeting this week on the floor of the Augusta Civic Center.

Dillingham: For termed-out members like myself, it’s the last time that you’re going to be sworn in to the Maine House of Representatives, unless you sit out and you run again, but you know, for most it’s probably the last time. For me, it was a little bittersweet, my second time serving as leader and my last time being sworn in and not having my family there.

Let’s talk about your party’s priorities for this session of the Legislature. What are the most important measures that this Legislature is going to need to take up?

Their priorities are addressing the issues around the pandemic, and one of them is reestablishing the co-equal branches of government. The Legislature needs to be part of any of the decisions that are being made. We’re the voice of the people, and that’s what we’re elected to do. And we’ve been cut out. We want to make sure that what our constituents are feeling — those that are losing their incomes, those that are losing their businesses — that their voice is heard in government.

I want to drill down on this just a little bit more to ask if it’s a question of Gov. Janet Mills, in the process of laying out her executive orders, has not had any process to involve legislators? Or would you like to see the structure change to perhaps remove some of the emergency powers that the governor has, and place them back in the hands of the Legislature?

So I have a bill in to amend Title 37-B and that is where the governor is drawing her powers for her emergency orders. My goal with that is it’s not this governor, it is between the legislative branch and the executive branch that when this was established, nobody could foresee that it would be used to deal with a virus. So it isn’t a question of, did she do the right thing in going to a civil emergency, it’s that the Legislature has not had a voice and we don’t have any way to impose a voice unless we get together and vote and remove her ability to do that. If that were to happen, the Legislature would need to immediately go to work on coming to a consensus on orders that have come through executive order to address what is going to be important that stays in place right now that we can all get on consensus and agreement with.

Now that you are back, are there any particular orders the governor has issued, that you would try to challenge?

It’s not necessarily a challenge, it’s having a conversation. So questioning the piece about having to wear your face mask when you’re out in public, even when you can’t socially distance, I think there would need to be some further clarification on what that means. I received lots of phone calls about, ‘Does that mean I have to wear them when I’m hunting and where I’m hiking?’ And if you looked at just the way that it said a public space, then that was a yes. And then also things that just seem somewhat arbitrary. So the having to close businesses if you serve food or alcohol at 9 p.m., because apparently we’re afraid of gatherings, those businesses were already under restrictions on how many people they could have in their building. It wasn’t gonna change from 8:59 p.m. to 9 p.m. It didn’t seem like it was sensical.

Needless to say one of the other major things the legislature will have to work on are budget bills, both for supplemental budget for this year, and then a new two-year budget. The pandemic is clearly going to cut into state revenue. How will your caucus propose that the state deal with that and create balanced budgets?

Well, our proposal is that we deal with it and we create a balanced budget and go through the process. It is a process that you have to go through. It’s one of those things that it’s kind of a wait and see what’s going to be proposed. And then let’s get to work on how we’re going to best be able to work the framework.

There’s also the possibility of increasing revenue. Is that something you would rule out given where the state is at the moment? Or is everything possible, depending on what the proposals actually are?

If you’re talking about, you know, tax increases and expansion of the tax base when people already suffering, I don’t think that’s the way to go. We haven’t had that as a full debate of our caucus so I’ll make it as a personal statement for me. I don’t believe taxing the people of Maine to sustain the growth in government we saw in the last budget is what we should be doing.

You have been away from legislating since March. Are you looking forward to resuming that role in the weeks and months ahead?

I’m looking forward to at least now having a venue to voice our concerns rather than just trying to do them through press releases and interviews and having the ability to have our members and myself being in committees, voicing our concerns and the concerns of our constituents, and also bringing those to the House floor.