Maine Legislative Alert: Reopening and Other Updates
The Legislative Practice Group at Preti Flaherty hopes you are all staying healthy, safe, and sane. We are continuing to interface with Governor Mills, her staff, and relevant of members of her administration on a daily basis. We are also in regular contact with our congressional delegation to inform them of your needs as well as obtain and quickly communicate information to you about Federal efforts to provide resources to businesses, healthcare operations, governmental entities and individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all forms of business in some fashion – some more immediately than others – but almost all sectors will experience long term financial, structural and operational impacts from the current crisis. We are working to connect all our clients with the resources needed to sustain themselves and, as always, we are looking for ways to maximize opportunities for your organizations as the state and the country begin initiating efforts to restart the economy.
Governor Mills’ Reopening Plan
We are working directly with the Mills administration to assure Maine’s economic recovery happens as soon as possible within responsible and appropriate safety protocols. Yesterday, Friday, May 8th Governor Mills announced her “Rural Reopening Plan” which applies to 12 of Maine’s 16 counties. Only Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot and York counties will remain within the previous Restarting Maine’s Economy guidelines. On Monday, May 11, the other, more rural and less impacted, counties will be allowed to open all retail stores within well-defined safety guidelines. Also gyms and other fitness facilities will be allowed to hold 10 person or less classes. Within these same guidelines on Monday, May 18th, restaurants in the same 12 counties can open for outdoor and limited dine-in services. Also on May 18th our rural sporting camps and remote campsites will be allowed to open and provide guide services.
Part of the explanation given for this change is the announcement Governor Mills made yesterday that, effective next week, Maine will have a tripling of testing capacity due to a partnership between the State and IDEXX. This will move us in the right direction, but we need more testing available to more quickly get our economy opened up during Maine’s busiest and most lucrative season. We hope to be able to report thoughtful amendments to Governor Mills’ most recent 4 stage economic recovery proposal very soon.
There are some state professional licensing board meetings being scheduled as on-line meetings. We are monitoring these as appropriate and making sure that relevant clients are aware of these meetings. In addition we will monitor the Revenue Forecasting Committee and the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission meetings in July and August which the Governor requested in addition to the statutory meeting dates in November and December. We have attached the most recent “Stay Safer at Home” Executive Order and the link to the Governor’s announcement with details of the current “Plan to Restart Maine’s Economy.”
Republican state legislators have recently been pushing to reconvene the legislature for the purpose of revoking Governor Mills’ emergency powers. There is no chance of this happening given that both chambers are controlled by Democratic majorities. However, Senate President Troy Jackson did send a letter to Governor Mills asking that a task force, including legislators, be created to make policy recommendations related to the pandemic and the reopening of the economy. Governor Mills has not directly responded to this request to our knowledge, but earlier this week she did announce a 37 member Economic Recovery Committee to make recommendations to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic and Maine long term economic recovery. The first meeting has not yet been scheduled, but the preliminary report from the committee is due no later than July 15th.
Labor and Housing Committee
Also this week the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Housing convened to hear from Commissioner of Labor, Laura Fortman, concerning the frustrations many constituents are experiencing in applying for unemployment benefits. Commissioner Fortman pointed out that in the week of March 15th claims went from 600 to over 21,000. She also made clear that 80% of these claims have been successful and, as of this week, only 19 of the people who applied in that first week are still waiting to qualify. Over $240 million in benefits have been distributed so far and over 75,000 Maine people are receiving unemployment benefits.
However, no one can dispute, that thousands of applicants have been unable to get through on the phone and/or have been locked out when attempting to apply online. Many others are receiving alerts from the system that they are not qualified or that they are qualified, but will receive a benefit of $0. These messages are being sent to the people who qualified as of May 1st for the Federal Pandemic Unemployment program for people who are not traditionally qualified, but who will, in fact, qualify for the new program.
The Commissioner acknowledged all these issues and explained that they are working to change the automatic messages generated by the website in order to lessen the confusion and panic of consumers. The department is also working in partnership with L.L. Bean to recruit and train 138 employees to handle claims processing and also contracted with a call center in Maine to increase the number of phone lines from 13 to over 100. She also made very clear that, as has always been the case, if a person on unemployment is offered a job, such as a reopened business, that employee is no longer qualified for unemployment. That person must either go back to work or prove that they have extenuating circumstances that would make it a risk to the person or the person’s family for the person to return to work at this time. They should then be on paid medical or family leave.
As you are probably aware, there seems to be less urgency at the Federal level to pass another relief package and less bipartisan agreement about the focus of such a package. We have heard from a congressional staffer that Speaker Pelosi will outline her goals to the Democratic House caucus on Monday. There appears to be a general consensus that there will be another stimulus package. There is support in the Republican led Senate for liability protections for businesses who have been deemed essential. This will perhaps be extended to other businesses as they open and ask their employees and customers to return. The Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing to help state and local governments lessen the massive budget shortfalls most, if not all, will be experiencing in the near future. President Trump is pushing to reduce capital gains taxes, allow companies to deduct investments made now and going forward, suspend payroll taxes and expand the deduction for corporate spending on meals and entertainment. So there is a great deal of negotiation still to come and we will continue to monitor the situation and discuss our clients needs with the Congressional delegation and our national partners.
Please do not hesitate to contact us with any of your current or foreseeable needs. We are happy to continue to work on your behalf and help with any future planning going forward.