Legislative committees are meeting again

A few weeks back, I wrote about how, while the job of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in Maine has mostly fallen to the governor and executive branch departments like the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is still a role for the Legislature to play. 

Before we adjourned in March, we passed a series of bills and a budget that gave the Maine CDC, the governor and other state agencies the tools they needed to respond to COVID-19. We’re not out of the woods yet, but it seems that Maine has been at least somewhat successful in suppressing the spread of COVID-19.

Now that we’ve reached this point, it’s time for the Legislature to get back to business. Item No. 1 on our agenda is taking steps to fix our broken unemployment system. Throughout this pandemic, my colleagues and I have spoken with thousands of Mainers who have run into problems trying to collect the benefits they are owed, and recently we learned of widespread fraud within the system from criminal organizations seeking to take advantage of this crisis. 

The problems are numerous and must be fixed.

The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee has now held two hearings to try to get answers and figure out a path forward. Unfortunately, the Department of Labor decided not to show up to the second hearing.

Another big priority is putting the state’s finances in order. Not only has responding to the COVID-19 outbreak required significant government resources, its economic consequences are likely to have a negative impact on state revenues. 

Recognizing this issue, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee began meeting again a few weeks ago. They started with a briefing from Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, who gave the committee a rundown of the state’s current financial situation

The news from Commissioner Figueroa was surprisingly good. When the Legislature adjourned, we left the state with strong cash reserves, which has allowed us to absorb most of the economic shock from COVID-19. It is therefore expected that Maine will finish this fiscal year with a balanced budget, as is required by the Maine Constitution. 

We also have not yet had to dip into the Rainy Day Fund, which remains at about $258 million — its highest level ever. The outlook remains uncertain, but this is positive news nonetheless.

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that I chair has also started meeting. We deal with a number of issues, but our top concern right now is what is being done to help farmers in Maine. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply and distribution chains and the availability of farm labor. Small farms, which operate on very thin margins, have been disproportionately affected, and making sure they can recover and stay in business will be a big priority for us going forward.

In addition to the Labor, Appropriations, and Agriculture committees, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee has begun meeting, as has the Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee and the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee

As we work our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, these meetings will help us shine a light on possible paths forward.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, you can reach me by emailing James.Dill@legislature.maine.gov or by calling my office at 207-287-1515. I work for you and you have a right to hold me accountable.

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