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Maine Legislature to continue virtual committee meetings amid pandemic

Maine Legislature
Robert F. Bukaty
The Maine State House is seen Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers returned to deal with Maine's struggling child welfare system and the state's tax code.

Both chambers of the Maine Legislature will convene for floor sessions at least three times next month. But legislative committees will continue to meet virtually because of the pandemic.

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that committees still have so much work on their plates that it doesn't make sense for the entire House and Senate to gather more often in February.

“While it would be good to see friends and colleagues, it would not be a good use of time or taxpayer dollars,” Jackson said in a statement. “We ought to be doing what we can to limit the stress on our hospitals and frontline workers and support our schools and teachers to ensure our kids can continue with in-person learning.”

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, says that high COVID-19 case rates and hospitalization figures in Maine justify continuing to hold virtual committee hearings and work sessions, at least for now.

“I’m hopeful because this week, the Maine CDC indicated that as hospitalizations from COVID-19 trend downward, we may start seeing it become safer to gather together,” Fecteau said in a statement. “That could mean more opportunities for hybrid committee hearings in the coming months.”

The two Democratic leaders say they'll continue to monitor the COVID situation in Maine. But Republican lawmakers contend it is past time for the Legislature to switch to hybrid meetings or resume in-person committee meetings at a time when schools, businesses and many organizations have fully reopened their doors. Republican leaders contend that virtual meetings do not lend themselves to as productive committee meetings – which is when most legislative work gets done – and contributes to an atmosphere of partisanship in Augusta.

The Legislature is now slated to hold House and Senate floor sessions on Feb. 10, 16 and 23.

Gov. Janet Mills, meanwhile, is still slated to deliver her State of the State address in-person to the full Legislature on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. after recording her speech last year. Mills’ State of the State address will be aired live on Maine Public’s television and radio stations and will be live-streamed on mainepublic.org.