In late April 2020, Maine Policy Institute sent to Governor Janet Mills detailed recommendations to help protect Maine’s economic vitality amid the turmoil caused by the government response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The following week, we delivered a petition signed by more than 5,400 Mainers to the governor and key commissioners in support of our recommendations. We found immense support from Maine people for a policy approach that balances public health with the needs of business owners and workers to maintain as much stability as possible. After all, these two aspects of society are inextricably linked.
We recommended several short-term measures that we believe Gov. Mills could enact on her own, by Executive Order, to stem the economic hardship of Mainers during this time. We also outlined our “post-crisis recommendations” which included a call to the Governor to convene a Special Session of the Maine Legislature, and some legislative actions we believe would help our state now and in the future.
Maine Policy has endeavored to advocate for folks struggling most under the immense hardship of this pandemic, from parents, to frontline medical workers, to small business owners trying to stay afloat. Although this crisis is not yet over, we urge state leaders to restore rule of the people through their elected representatives and begin the crucial work of governing our state by consensus.
We call on legislative leadership, Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Sara Gideon, to call the Maine Legislature back into session and restore regular order, and to address several urgent issues highlighted by the pandemic and the ensuing government response.
A better, more inclusive approach exists, emphasizing guidelines from the state instead of mandates, to respond to the hazards of COVID-19. It is time for all of the people’s representatives to regain their powers to direct policy.
Pursuant to Public Law Chapter 617, the legislature and its subcommittees may conduct proceedings through virtual or telephone conference while the State of Emergency is in effect. We urge lawmakers to utilize this portion of law to conduct regular business of the Legislature where applicable.
Step 1: The Legislative Council should convene to hear emergency COVID-19 response legislation.
Step 2: Legislative committees should utilize virtual meetings to consider these bills, and advance them for votes in the full House and Senate.
Step 3: Once all business is complete, legislators must end the Civil State of Emergency declared by Governor Mills in March (and extended twice since), restoring regular rule by the people.
The following priorities should be submitted for consideration as emergency legislation:
Review the Governor’s Emergency Powers
Even in times of crisis, the people of Maine deserve their place at the table. Maine’s legislature should pass the reforms put forth by Rep. Kathleen Dillingham to revise emergency executive power and require constant legislative involvement during a Civil State of Emergency.
End Certificate of Need
Certificate of Need needlessly requires hospitals and medical facilities to prove the worth of their investments to competitors. Red tape should never stand in the way of serving sick Mainers. While the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet tested our health care infrastructure to the extent originally anticipated, we must have the ability to respond to a challenge to our health care capacity should it arise. The state’s Certificate of Need law should be repealed to allow for the immediate expansion of health care system capacity.
Concerns over the availability of hospital resources has been the primary driver of widespread government-imposed lockdowns on the economy. There is no excuse to limit the capacity of hospitals and medical facilities to care for the potentially ill.
Aiding Maine Parents and Schoolchildren
Over the last few months, thousands of Maine families have adapted to the nature of at-home, district-directed learning environments. To assist those parents with the added costs of administering an education at home, we recommend that the state provide families a tax rebate equal to 5-10% of the state share of education spending for each student per year.
We still do not know if school districts will be capable of administering in-person instruction by the fall. Parents will have shouldered much of this burden and might continue to do so. Some of what Maine families pay in taxes to fund education should be returned to them while they host school in their homes.
Licensing and Regulatory Rule Changes
Maine should make permanent the emergency rules issued by the Governor during this time. Maine has no legitimate or compelling interest in preventing out-of-state licensed health care professionals from practicing in Maine, nor in preventing a Maine citizen from receiving telehealth services from a provider in a different state.
Our state should use this pandemic as an opportunity to review needless professional regulation that could hamper our ability to withstand or react to the next crisis. Any medical licensing and telehealth regulations waived in response to COVID-19 should be made permanent unless there is evidence that the waiver endangered public health and safety during the pandemic.
Ease Tax Burden on Maine Families
Exempt all federal coronavirus relief payments from state income taxes. Pass tax conformity so that the current emergency federal tax exemptions are protected from state taxes.
Freeze Minimum Wage Increase
Maine should freeze its minimum wage at $12 per hour, removing the planned CPI-chained increase to help businesses like those in the struggling hospitality and service industries maintain workforce levels during the summer months. This move would also speed rehiring efforts across the economy.
Disbursing CARES Act Funding to Assist Maine’s Most Needy
Concerning the $1.25 billion granted to the State of Maine by the federal government via the CARES Act, we urge state officials to avoid using this money to “backfill revenue” as described by members of the legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs. First of all, the authorizing law only allows this money to be spent for costs incurred due to the public health emergency. The Treasury Department in its guidance document specifically states that the CARES Act relief funding is not for “revenue replacement.” Instead, as states like New Hampshire have done, Maine could distribute CARES Act funding through a grant process for nonprofits and businesses that sustain daily life for so many, in addition to supporting a more robust testing regime, as the state has done.
A tracking poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April found over half of U.S. adults (56%) reported experiencing “at least one negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing, such as problems with sleeping or eating, increased alcohol use, or worsening chronic conditions” due to the coronavirus outbreak and response. In an effort to prepare for a greater burden on Maine’s mental health system, the state should disburse some of the CARES Act funding to organizations and workers responsible for meeting this need after the coronavirus subsides.
Supporting public resources like the Maine Crisis Hotline and staffing more Crisis and Emergency Response Teams would help Maine respond to an increased need for mental health services.
For individuals struggling with substance abuse, this is an especially challenging time. Many clinics are limited in their ability to take individuals at the moment, and social support is limited (which may lead to an increased desire to use). Substance rehabilitation centers would benefit from funding in order to accept more clients for treatment while maintaining a safe environment for those they accept.
Considering the warranted concern of preserving beds for COVID-19 patients, CARES Act funds could be used to construct and fund crisis stabilization units for children with severe mental illnesses and development disorders. Children who are suffering from acute psychiatric crises are often shuttled into emergency rooms, where they sometimes remain for days. Allocating funds for this purpose would serve the two-fold purpose of assisting caretakers of these children while also preserving emergency room resources for potential COVID-19 patients.
CARES Act funding could also be used to provide bonus pay for staff at nursing homes and residential care facilities throughout the state. A bonus would decrease the possibility that these workers might leave their positions due to increased risk and complexity of the care they provide. In addition to supporting nursing home staff, the state of Maine could assist elderly Mainers by supporting nonprofits that provide meals to the elderly, such as churches with food distribution programs and food pantries.
Maine’s municipalities might have also incurred expenditures associated with the response to COVID-19 like new emergency management costs, expenses related to facilitating telework, or gaps in funding wages, benefits, and child care costs of first responders. State CARES Act funds could be used to reimburse towns and cities for these pandemic-related costs.
Public health, economic vitality, and social cohesion have all suffered during the response to COVID-19. Officials should look closely at these issues before considering CARES Act funds for revenue replacement. Federal funds earmarked for pandemic-related relief must be used to provide that relief to Mainers in the most direct, efficient ways possible.
In conclusion, Maine people are strong, but they are still struggling to adapt to the stress of a wholesale lockdown of the economy. They have been asked to make sacrifices for the good of all. Our leaders in state government must rise to meet their unique challenges as well, upholding their duty to serve all Maine people.