(TNS) — State House leaders face enormous logistical challenges as they attempt to allow participation in next year's legislative proceedings in ways that both protect public health and avoid inadvertently disenfranchising those on the wrong side of Maine's technological divide.
Last week's opening day of the 130th Maine Legislature, held at the Augusta Civic Center, was a dry run for how all 186 senators and representatives as well as staff can gather while reducing risk of COVID-19 through masks and physical distancing. But with the State House closed to the public for the foreseeable future, lawmakers are still debating how best to provide public access to the legislative committees that conduct much of the day-to-day work.
"We are building the plane while we are flying it, just like everybody else in the world right now," said Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R- Augusta, the assistant minority leader in the Senate. "But these unprecedented times require collaboration and cooperation."
Committees plan to conduct many of their meetings virtually, at least initially, with opportunities for the public to either join by video conference or by phone. But legislative leaders are still working with nonpartisan State House staff about how best to run those hearings, which occasionally run all day — and sometimes longer than 12 hours — as dozens of people testify on hot-button issues.
House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D- Biddeford, noted that the Legislature "is not necessarily an institution that changes often in how it does things." But he said lawmakers and staff can learn from the lessons of municipalities and governments in Maine and across the country that have been allowing remote participation by the public for months amid the pandemic.
"The nonpartisan staff has put a ton of thinking into a way that we can do (this) in a safe manner that protects public health" while still providing opportunities for participation, said Fecteau, who was elected House speaker last week. "It will definitely require all of us to do the business of the Legislature in a new way."
Last week, the full Legislature adopted a set of rules allowing committee members participating in a meeting remotely to cast a vote electronically and that any actions taken during electronic meetings "have the same legal effect as if the members were physically present at the seat of government."
The so-called "joint order" still requires the Legislature to provide the public with advanced notice of a meeting consistent with Maine's Freedom of Access laws. The order also states that any member of the public in attendance — including remotely — will "have the opportunity to hear and participate in, as appropriate, the meeting or proceeding."
Specifics about how that participation will happen have yet to be ironed out, however, and committees will likely be allowed to tweak their practices with permission from legislative leaders.
"That's the baseline — there has to be an opportunity to participate," Fecteau said. "There will be that opportunity through Zoom, ... but if they don't have access to the internet or a computer, there will also be a call-in option available as well."
The latter is a major concern. Vast swaths of Maine lack access to the broadband internet needed to support a video-conferencing application, and many Mainers lack either the equipment or the know-how to join a meeting electronically.
Under current rules, the only people granted access to the "legislative space" within the State House are lawmakers, staff, members of the media, contractors and delivery personnel. In addition to passing a health screening checklist daily, individuals permitted inside the State House must wear a protective face covering unless they are alone in that space or in a cubicle located at least 6 feet from others. Capitol Police will be have the ability to enforce the requirements.
During a meeting of legislative leaders on Thursday, however, Republican lawmakers proposed allowing some "invited guests" or members of the public to enter the State House under strictly defined circumstances. In an interview on Friday, Pouliot gave an example of elderly family members who don't have computers, and even if they did wouldn't know how to Zoom into a public hearing to testify on an issue.
Pouliot suggested opening the State House Welcome Center — a room just inside the main entrance that is regularly used for press conferences, meetings and other events during normal times — for such individuals.
"I think it's just imperative that we provide a place at the State House that we can monitor and make available to the public so they can come in and share their views," Pouliot said.
The legislative process can be confusing and intimidating under normal circumstances, said Meagan Sway, policy director at the Maine ACLU. So it is even more important that the Legislature make extra efforts, Sway said, to ensure that the public can navigate the technical aspects of participating during a year when health care, the budget and COVID-related issues are likely to take center stage.
"It is going to be that much harder but more important that there are clear guidelines and notices posted online and other places about how to participate," Sway said. "It shouldn't be that you have to know to email the clerk (for access)."
Lawmakers introduced more than 2,000 pieces of legislation during the last two-year session. It's too early to tell whether the changes prompted by COVID-19 will also put a damper on lawmakers' enthusiasm for sponsoring bills.
But pandemic or not, the Legislature is obligated to carry out one of its primary purposes next year: passing a two-year budget. Always a contentious process given the intense competition for limited resources, this coming year's budget-making will be further complicated by the fact that state tax revenues are likely to be down hundreds of millions of dollars because of the economic toll of the virus.
Sen. Cathy Breen, a Falmouth Democrat who has co-chaired the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said the panel held multiple "hybrid" meetings over the summer involving people in the State House and joining remotely. But the committee hears from hundreds of individuals during the monthslong budget process.
Asked how the committee will handle the deluge, Breen replied "The honest answer is I don't know yet" because the guidance has not been passed down.
"There might be some trial and error, too," Breen said. "We are in unprecedented times. But the good news is that, without regard to party, everybody wants public participation. And we might end up with more of it."
From takeout food from formerly sit-down-only restaurants to curbside grocery service, COVID-19 has prompted societal changes that are likely to stick around after the pandemic subsides. And some people hope the shift to allowing live-but-remote testimony to government bodies, including the Legislature, will be another change with staying power.
In his remarks to senators after being re-elected to lead the chamber, Senate President Troy Jackson predicted that the upcoming session "will be the most open and accessible Legislature in the history of our state."
Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who lives along Maine's northern border with Canada, explained: "For the first time, Mainers will be able to participate in public hearings and watch committee meetings from their home. Even better, if they want to testify at a public hearing, they will be able to participate remotely instead of having to drive all the way to the State House.
"If one of my constituents wants to testify at a public hearing, they have to take the day off and drive at least three hours to the State House only to share three minutes of testimony before turning around again and driving those three hours home," Jackson said. "This session, we need to prioritize policies like this to ensure constituents, like mine and yours, have a greater voice in Augusta."
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