Session finished at an accelerated pace
Like much of the rest of the country, and the world, Maine is grappling with the impact of the spreading COVID-19, or the Coronavirus. As of this writing, Maine has more than 70 confirmed cases for the virus and will likely see more in the days and weeks to come. The virus has disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions of people from coast to coast and around the globe, and the confirmation of Maine’s first illness this week was the first domino to fall here.
Like other states and countries, events, mass gatherings, conferences, even smaller meetings here in Maine have been postponed to a later time or cancelled outright. For those of us who work in Augusta, and specifically in the Statehouse complex, given the nature of the public process, “social distancing” was made the end of session problematic during the past few days. And therefore, the Legislature was forced to adapt and compress its normal timeline.
Had things been normal, the second session of any legislative session would have ended by mid-April. This session, the statutory adjournment date was Wednesday, April 15. However, COVID-19 changed all that. Instead, the legislature was forced to compress its remaining workload in a single day, Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
In its effort to enforce social distancing, all members of the public were denied access to the Statehouse this week and going forward. This means that other than legislators, their staff, and members of the Mills administration, no one was able to attend the last day of session – including any members of the lobby.
The primary focus of Tuesday was to pass emergency legislation in order to address the COVID-19 crisis. Usually the definition of “emergency” in these cases tend to be conditional, but in the case of Tuesday, the legislature kept to a tight understanding of what needed to be done. Furthermore, to their credit, they did so in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner.
While a number of bills were finally enacted, the most important were passage of the supplemental biennial budget adjustments; LD 2126; and, a bond package in the form of LD 2134, which will authorize a bond package that consists of $105 million for transportation infrastructure improvements and $15 million for broadband expansion. The bond question will appear on the June ballot.
LD 2167, An Act To Implement Provisions Necessary to the Health, Welfare and Safety of the Citizens of Maine in Response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, is sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook). This Governor’s bill represents an omnibus bill giving the governor and state broad emergency powers to deal with the pandemic. The bill’s summary can be found at http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_129th/billtexts/SP078901.asp.
From an employment perspective, there are two important sections of the bill of which employers and employees should be aware. The first deals with changes in the Unemployment Insurance program, designed to give greater flexibility to workers while also addressing employers’ concerns. First, the usual “one week wait” period required by the program for any individual seeking UI benefits will be waived going forward. Therefore, if an employee is laid-off they would become eligible to receive benefits immediately. Similarly, as long as a furloughed or temporarily laid-off employee remains “attached” to an employer, the “willing and able” requirements (more commonly known as work search) will be waived.
For employers, benefits associated with UI payouts during this period of emergency will not be charged against an employer’s experience rating when calculating UI taxes going forward. Additional and more in-depth information can be found on our website at https://www.mainechamber.org/covid19.html.
A second important provision of the law is the establishment of a short-term loan program targeting individuals and sole proprietors. Administered under the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME), the loan program is designed to provide short-term financial relief for individuals who are laid off and unable to find work. The loans are accessed through your local financial institution – banks or credit unions – and are designed to be an economic bridge between an individual’s take home pay and any UI benefits they may be receiving. Individuals will have access for up to three months of loans, to a maximum amount of $5,000 per month. They will be interest free for 90 days and have up to nine months to pay the loan amount back. It is important to note that this loan program should be considered as a last back stop of financial assistance. Before applying for this loan, individuals should seek other options at their financial institutions. Again, more information can be found on the Maine State Chamber website at https://www.mainechamber.org/covid19.html.
When the legislature left Augusta last Tuesday evening, they adjourned “sine die,” or without day, which means, if they return – and based on statements by leadership, they do plan to return at some point – it would be for a special session sometime later in the summer or fall.
There remained several very important pieces of legislation under consideration in committees and in both legislative bodies. These include bills to increase Maine’s overtime threshold, set up a first-in-the-nation mandatory packaging/recycling program, authorize a local option sales tax, increase the estate tax, allow for a publicly-owned utility, and allow private practice attorneys to pursue wage-and-hour violations on behalf of the state, to name but a few.
Some of these bills – the overtime threshold, packaging bill, and taxation issues, in particular – would send Maine in the wrong direction from the Chamber’s perspective. All these bills would increase the cost of doing business here and would do so in a time of great uncertainty for the business community. If, or when, the legislature returns, the Maine State Chamber will be on the third floor of the Statehouse advocating for the defeat of theses harmful bills. We will also need you to continue to be engaged through email or phone calls, to urge legislators to reject these proposals.
It is hard for all of us to assimilate all that has happened in our state and nation in the past week or so. It is even harder to imagine where we might be in another week or month. We share your anxiety in coping with all the unknowns in our personal lives and with our businesses. The best way for all of us to quell these anxieties is to communicate and be informed with facts, not fears. The Maine State Chamber has partnered with members of the Mills administration, the Maine Department of Labor, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the nearly 60 local and regional chambers of commerce across Maine, and many others, to bring you the latest and most pertinent information that matters most. For updates and detailed information, please visit our website at https://www.mainechamber.org/covid19.html.
The Maine State Chamber is open for business. We may be working remotely, but we are here for you and will remain so. You should know that we have faced challenges before, and we have come out the better because of challenges. We are all up to the task. We may call on your help, but we remain your “Voice of Maine Business” in Augusta.