Under extraordinary circumstances, leaders of the Maine State Legislature came together, working tirelessly throughout the March 14-15 weekend, and reached agreement on a package of new laws to address the immediate needs of state government in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The following Tuesday, the last day of the recent legislative session, the entire State Legislature passed, and Gov. Mills signed, those changes in law granting special temporary powers to the governor to act while the Legislature is out of session. It was a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented effort, with members of both parties and both houses collaborating without delay or serious disagreement.
None of us took the granting of these powers lightly, but we agreed that these steps were necessary given the very real possibility that the Legislature will not be able to safely meet again until the outbreak and its effects have subsided.
The changes in state law temporarily provide Gov. Mills with additional powers for the duration of the state of emergency that she has declared due to the outbreak of COVID-19. These powers are designed to enable her to reduce the impact of the pandemic and they automatically expire once the crisis subsides.
About schools, these include the authority to waive the compulsory school attendance requirements, including the minimum number of school days, or allow the compulsory attendance requirements to be met through nontraditional learning systems, including but not limited to remote access. Schools may also continue to provide nutrition services to students of schools that are closed.
Regarding unemployment insurance eligibility, the new law allows an individual who takes a temporary leave of absence due to COVID-19 to qualify for unemployment benefits. This includes a waiver of the initial waiting period, as well as waiving the requirement that those receiving benefits continue to look for work.
If an annual municipal budget meeting is delayed, cities and towns may use the prior year’s budget for the following year until a budget meeting can be held. Annual municipal elections may also be postponed by the municipal officers. School boards may postpone budget meetings or votes past July 1 with certain conditions.
Vehicle licenses and registrations issued by a municipality, such as for motor vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, watercraft, and dogs, may be extended until 30 days after the end of the state of emergency.
A municipality, without conducting a hearing, may grant a request for a renewal of a license to sell alcohol. This is valid only during the state of emergency and the 30 days following the end of the state of emergency.
The law also requires the secretary of state, Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to allow a resident of this state to renew the registration of a motor vehicle, trailer, all-terrain vehicle, or watercraft for the duration of the state of emergency and 30 days following the end of the state of emergency.
It also provides the governor additional powers under the Maine Emergency Management Act to suspend the termination of residential electricity and water services during the period of the state of emergency and up to 60 days after the state of emergency is terminated. Under this change, electric and water utilities cannot be disconnected for lack of payment.
The governor may now modify or suspend the requirements for professional or occupational licensing or registration by any agency, board, or commission if strict compliance with such requirements would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in dealing with the state of emergency.
For displaced workers, the new laws establish the Loan Guarantee Program, administered by the Finance Authority of Maine, to provide easier access to no-interest loans for residents of this state, including self-employed residents, who experience a reduction in income due to the state of emergency arising from COVID-19.
Under the program, affected employees are eligible for up to three loans, each equal to their monthly after-tax pay, up to $5,000, less unemployment benefits. Repayment is due starting 90 days after the end of the state of emergency and during the subsequent six months; during that period, interest may not be charged or accrue on the loan.
Finally, regarding the June 9, 2020 elections, it authorizes the governor to take any reasonable administrative actions necessary to facilitate voting by all residents registered to vote in Maine in a manner that preserves and protects public health in response to COVID-19, including, but not limited to, issuance and receipt of absentee ballots for the June 9, 2020 elections.
This is just a summary of the changes in law enacted by the State Legislature. There are many other actions, supports, and benefits being created and offered by state government. These programs are changing daily. To keep informed, you can see a list of resources and information by going to mesenategop.com and clicking on the “Coronavirus Resources” link.
(Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor. He serves as Senate minority leader and sits on the Marine Resources Committee.)