The use of the arena for House and Senate floor sessions to provide the space needed to meet physical distancing guidelines for COVID-19 will cost the state $4,025 a day.
The Maine Legislature could face added expenses as they head into the next legislative session constricted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this month the Legislature was sworn in at the 49,000-square-foot Augusta Civic Center in order to keep newly elected lawmakers at least 6 feet from one another. The ceremonies, which were closed to the general public and would ordinarily have taken place in the State House, cost just over $145,000.
That unbudgeted cost included the setup and rental of the arena from the city of Augusta at $4,025 a day, plus $92,467 for computer tablets needed to carry out paperless voting. Other costs included three days of lunches for the 186 lawmakers and their staff at nearly $5,000, and audiovisual and other technology expenses for connecting to the Legislature’s live online video and audio streams, used to enable the public to observe the proceedings.
While large amounts of the recent expense are one-time technology costs that may reduce the use of paper at the State House in the future, the daily rental costs remain.
The Legislature has no standing contract for the space, but the civic center has left the auditorium, which can seat 6,000 people, set up for lawmakers’ return. The space will remain unused otherwise, as public gatherings are capped at 50 people under an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills to curb virus transmission.
The arena will charge the state $4,025 for each day lawmakers use it going forward. In the first session of the previous Legislature, lawmakers held floor sessions in the State House on 57 days. If they hold sessions on 57 days during the upcoming session, the cost to taxpayers will be about $229,000.
The federal government has provided more than $7.4 billion in coronavirus relief funding to Maine and its residents, including $2.8 billion under the CARES Act. However, none of the federal COVID-19 funding administered by the state was authorized for legislative costs.
Lawmakers will likely have to tap contingency funds in the Legislature’s annual budget, which runs around $30 million, to cover the unbudgeted expenses associated with using the civic center. Expenses for last year may have been reduced somewhat when the Legislature adjourned in March, earlier than expected, because of the pandemic.
It’s not clear yet how public access will be accommodated in the Legislature’s new setting. No members of the public were allowed in the civic center when lawmakers were sworn in, but the technology installed for that ceremony will enable live-streaming of their activities.
Leadership has taken steps to streamline the process of preparing bills and assigning them to committees, which will save time and avoid bringing lawmakers together in floor sessions for what are largely administrative tasks.
In 2018, the first session of the Legislature saw more than 2,400 bills submitted. Of that total, 1,845 were printed and, as is typical for any Legislature, about a third of those eventually became law.
Although some Republicans are agitating for the Legislature to start its work as soon as possible, until there are bills drafted there is little work to do and lawmakers will have until Dec. 18 to make their recommendations for bills.