The Maine Legislature is planning to hold more remote meetings in the New Year when it reconvenes to consider a packed legislative agenda.
The House and Senate will meet in person on Jan. 5 and 26, but committee meetings and other legislative business will be held remotely, with audio and video streams available to the public, Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau said in a memo to lawmakers.
Jackson, a Allagash Democrat, said legislative leaders can’t afford to loosen restrictions amid a surge of infections fueled by highly contagious strains of the virus.
"We simply can't afford to put our families and communities at risk or further stress our hospitals, health care providers and frontline workers," he said in a statement.
Fecteau, a Biddeford Democrat, noted that holding committee hearings and other legislative business remotely has improved participation among the public.
"Last session, we had Mainers calling in and zooming in to participate in public hearings from every corner of the state-from barns, kitchen tables, garages and shops," he said in a statement. "It was incredible to see how everyday people could participate and get engaged in the political process without having to drive to Augusta."
But Fecteau said he "remains committed to the safety and health of the nonpartisan staff, the public, and the lawmakers at the State House."
The Maine State House in Augusta will be open to the public next year, but COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing will be in place, according to the memo.
At the top of lawmakers' agenda when they return to formal sessions in January will be deciding how to spend a windfall of excess tax revenues collected by the state.
Gov. Janet Mills' administration says the state's general fund revenues are up $822 million or 9.7% for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 compared to projections in the biennial budget.
Mills, who is expected to roll out her plan for spending the money next month, wants to use the extra revenue "to provide direct financial relief" to those hit hard hit by the pandemic.
Republican lawmakers want to use the excess revenue to provide tax breaks and have argued against putting the one-time funds into programs that will require ongoing revenue.
Last month, House and Senate GOP leaders floated a proposal for $300 million in income tax relief for individuals who worked during the pandemic.
The plan called for providing a tax cut for 2020 by exempting an additional $10,200 in income from state income tax.