Question of virtual or in-person legislative meetings sparks partisan debate
Republican state lawmakers pushed back – unsuccessfully – on Wednesday against a plan to continue holding virtual committee meetings amid the latest COVID-19 surge.
State lawmakers gathered Wednesday at the State House for the first meeting of the 2022 legislative session. But with Maine experiencing the highest COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates of the pandemic, the Legislature’s Democratic leaders have opted to continue holding virtual committee meetings for the time being and have scheduled just one more day of in-person floor sessions during January. The prospect of continuing to legislate via Zoom sparked the first partisan debate of the year, however.
While welcoming senators back to the State House, Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash said he was thankful to see that so many members had chosen to use the more protective face masks that had been provided to them. And Jackson said he was confident they could work together to do "the people's work" safely even as COVID-19 surges.
"So thank you for your understanding, and thank you for complying today and all of your efforts to defeat this virus and ensure a safer environment for all of us who enter the Maine State Senate,” Jackson said.
But just a half-hour later, several Republican senators urged their colleagues to oppose a decision by Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau to continue holding all committee meetings virtually. They portrayed virtual meetings as less productive and more partisan. They also claimed virtual meetings potentially disenfranchise people who lack the equipment, internet access or technological know-how to testify on a bill remotely. And Republican Minority Leader
Sen. Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner pointed out that people across Maine have returned to workplaces or schools.
"Why are we more special than the person who served us at the restaurant we ate at last? Or the person who last cut our hair? Or the person who bagged our groceries?” Timberlake said during a floor speech. “The answer is, we're not."
Some of the rhetoric became even more charged later in the Maine House. Freshman Rep. Tracy Quint of Hodgdon accused Democratic leaders of denying people without internet access the right to speak directly to their representatives.
"I should not have to go down to my local library when this bill is here in Augusta and it should be open,” Quint said. “Other states in our country are able to do this. Why is our leadership so poor that we are unable to do this?"
Last year, the full House and Senate convened periodically in Augusta but most committee hearings were held virtually. Those meetings were open to the public, however, and people could testify by videoconference, telephone or through written comments. And supporters of this year's policy said virtual meetings will help avoid additional transmission that could happen in small committee rooms packed with lawmakers, citizens, lobbyists and legislative staff.
Democratic lawmakers pointed out that the Legislature still passed a budget and passed a slew of major bills last year. And they say allowing the public to Zoom into a meeting actually enabled many more people from all of the large state to participate without having to drive to Augusta.
Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop, for instance, pointed out that every legislative committees had more unanimous votes than divided votes during last year's session. And Hickman saw political motivations in Wednesday's debate.
"It's great to be here,” Hickman said. “I didn't realize I was going to show up to work for the first day of the campaign season, but so shall it be."
The plan from Fecteau and Jackson had to be approved by the House and Senate in the form of procedural rules. And both Democratic-controlled chambers eventually approved the joint order largely along party lines.
For his part, Jackson was unapologetic for opting to continue with virtual meetings. Stepping down from the Senate rostrum to respond to the criticisms, the Allagash Democrat and professional logger said has been asked to work in unsafe conditions. And Jackson said he knows people who lost their lives because of unsafe working conditions.
"If any of you think that I wanted to serve as the Senate President under a system like this, you are crazy because this is not what I expected,” Jackson said. “But I am going to continue the course because I feel very strongly that I am not going to put someone else's life at risk. Any of you."
Both Fecteau and Jackson say the goal is to eventually switch to hybrid meetings allowing in-person or online participation. And the two leaders pledged to regularly re-visit the meeting policy based on the latest COVID trends.