“The powers of this government shall be divided into 3 distinct departments, the legislative, executive and judicial.” That is Article III, Section 1 of the Maine Constitution.
Take a look at the order of the departments.
As the pandemic has unfolded, we have seen plenty from the executive branch. Gov. Janet Mills has exercised her emergency powers to undertake countless actions. Statewide closures and rural reopenings capture most of the headlines, but she has issued 40 executive orders since March 18.
Fights have since been moved to the judicial department. Sunday River Brewing Co. is the most high profile thus far, with a Maine Superior Court issuing an injunction against its reopening. A few days later, the Mills administration returned his licenses and they are now open for business. More to come in that story.
Do you see anyone missing?
When you read the Maine Constitution, the legislative department is listed first. While the three branches are co-equal, the Legislature should be primus inter pares — first among equals.
So where are they?
That is the question that more and more people are asking. When the coronavirus situation began to accelerate in mid-March, the Legislature quickly passed a response bill and left town. It was a prudent course of action; the situation was rapidly changing and the legislative process is not well-suited for swift, decisive action.
Yet that was two months ago. Since then, we’ve seen the U.S. Surgeon General go from discouraging mask use to various states mandating them in certain situations. The S&P 500 index ended Wednesday pretty much equal to where it was March 6. And we have seen a few stories come to light — unemployment compensation for inmates, Kittery nursing home testing denials — that cry out for further inquiry.
So it is time for the Legislature to go back to work.
A few weeks ago, Republican legislative leaders sought to return to Augusta and resume their work. House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson rejected the call. Predictably, it led to partisan sparring.
However, the reality is that the coronavirus will be with us for quite a while yet to come. If the Maine Legislature refuses to re-engage until the situation is resolved, then our system of government will be effectively nullified. The “powers of government … divided into 3 distinct departments” by the constitution means naught if one of the departments shutters its doors.
This is not to say the emergency situation is over and we should just fall back into the usual day-to-day. Normal state purchasing rules should be jettisoned in favor of rapid procurement, such as test kits from Abbott Labs and IDEXX or swabs from Puritan Medical Products. Flexibility in liquor laws and traffic patterns gives our hospitality business opportunities to find creative ways to operate.
But all of these temporary measures can occur with appropriate legislative oversight.
At the federal level, much of the criticism levied is that there is not enough congressional oversight of coronavirus response activities. It is a legitimate concern. And that is why Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Angus King are right to reject calls for Congress to take its traditional Memorial Day recess. There is work to do.
Speaker Gideon and President Jackson should follow their lead. There are accusations in a federal lawsuit about illegal gun registries, reports of inmates receiving nearly $200,000 in unemployment compensation, and millions of dollars in revenue shortfalls forthcoming.
It is time for the Legislature to assert its position in our constitutional order. If they do their jobs, it will be another step in getting Maine back to work.