AUGUSTA, Maine — One year ago this weekend, Maine was just beginning its fight against COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolded, one of the weapons for that battle was the governor’s declaration of a state of civil emergency. It allowed Gov. Janet Mills to restrict everything from business operations to church services, impose a mask mandate and a stay-at-home order, mandate school operation plans, and, more recently vaccination eligibility.
There has been a widespread belief that the Legislature gave the governor those extra powers last spring before it adjourned, but in fact, leaders of both parties have said the laws regarding the state of civil emergency have been on the books for years.
Those steps have ebbed and flowed over the past year but the state of civil emergency remains in place, extended multiple times by the governor as the virus has continued to threaten Mainers.
And it has become increasingly controversial.
That was evident this week as the Maine Senate debated a proposal by GOP Sen. Rick Bennett to end the state of civil emergency, and effort to force more involvement by the Legislature in COVID decision making.
“This resolution at long last will end the state of emergency,” said Bennett on Thursday, noting that the state of civil emergency has now been extended 11 times.
“This, in turn, has meant effectively surrendering many legislative powers to the Executive Branch. This is about restoring the functioning of our democracy and I believe it is absolutely essential we do so.”
Other Republicans and a few Democrats supported Bennett’s effort, saying none of them ever imagined the state of emergency would last as long as it has.
Republican legislators have complained for months that they haven’t been included in the decision-making on how to respond to the pandemic, and even Democratic Sen. David Miramant voiced a similar complaint.
“Our voices as representatives of the people of Maine have been ignored for too long after that reasonable period,” Miramant said in the debate.
But most Democrats opposed the move and supported Gov. Mills. Chief among them was Sen. Mark Lawrence, who said the Legislature would be consistently unable to make the quick decisions needed to deal with the virus.
“We need executive authority to act quickly and swiftly, and thank God we have it. I wake up every morning and thank God we have a strong, decisive woman as governor of this state who has led us through this crisis.”
Bennett’s request for a joint order by the Senate was defeated 19-15, with three Democrats siding with Republicans. A similar order was defeated Wednesday in the House on a party-line vote.
Gov. Mills was adamant that she needs the declaration to react quickly to changes and requirements of COVID.
“Just this morning I signed an executive order for three million for vaccine distribution,” Mills said, explaining the order used certain federal funds.
“Should I stop and take a poll of 186 legislators to see where they stood?”
The governor also said some of the federal money the state has been using to pay for the COVID response operations requires an emergency declaration, and that ending the declaration would cut off some of that funding. Bennett and some of the other Republicans said they do not believe that is correct.
Mills also said the basic facts are that COVID-19 is still a serious threat.
“If I said no more state of emergency, first of all, that would be a lie because people are getting sick. People are dying of coronavirus in Maine at this time. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
The debate, however, is not over.
Lawmakers say there are as many as half a dozen other bills, making their way through the process, which will be coming up for public hearings and votes in the weeks ahead, all aimed at changing or restricting the governor’s authority under the state of emergency.