AUGUSTA — For weeks, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee have been skirting Maine’s open-meeting law as they work to craft a $6.8 billion state budget.
Some lawmakers and lobbyists said the practice has gone on for years.
Committee members took their meetings behind closed doors on multiple occasions on Tuesday. Legislative staff and lawmakers defended the process, saying the meetings were necessary and the traditional way the state’s budget has been negotiated.
The committee has been breaking into two groups based on party affiliation to work out ideas, according to the committee’s chairwomen, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.
“We’ve asked about that over the years and partisan caucuses have always been acceptable,” Rotundo said.
She said Democrats were not negotiating deals with Republicans behind closed doors and then presenting them in the open meeting as a “fait accompli.”
But she confirmed that lawmakers from both parties were participating in the so-called “committee caucus” meetings.
“There have been instances where someone from our caucus would go in and provide information to a handful of people within the caucus,” Rotundo said.
The committee has frequently gone on and off the Legislature’s public, online audio feed, and the partisan committee caucuses are not recorded or broadcast online.
Over the past weekend, the committee met on both Saturday and Sunday. The meetings were scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m., according to memos distributed by staff, but they didn’t go “on mic” for the official broadcast system until about 6 p.m. on Saturday and at about 4:50 p.m. Sunday.
Lawmakers said the media were welcome to come to the meetings — and some had done so — but a sign on the door leading to the offices where the caucuses meet reads, “Legislators and staff only.”
Legislators said the spaces where the committee caucus meetings take place were not large enough to accommodate the general public or the professional lobbyists who usually attend the meetings.
One lawmaker involved in the process, who asked not to be identified Tuesday, was worried about the legal and ethical implications of the practice.
Maine law is clear in stating that any group of three or more lawmakers working on committee work constitutes a legislative “subcommittee,” and those meetings are public proceedings.
The law is silent on “party caucus” meetings.
Communications staff for both Senate and House Democrats said they were relying on a decades-old opinion of a former state attorney general.
That opinion reads, in part, “Party caucuses are not committees or subcommittees of the Legislature, so their meetings do not appear to be public proceedings. Similarly, informal meetings of the members of a committee who are affiliated with the same party are not public proceedings as these members are not designated by the committee as a whole to conduct business of the committee.”
That opinion also warns, “However, committee members should be careful when they caucus not to make decisions or otherwise use the caucus to circumvent the public proceeding requirements.”
The committee has taken regular “breaks” to go behind doors to caucus and when they emerge they often present detailed proposals.
Lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle Tuesday were often complimentary of the briefings they received from their colleagues in the opposite party on various topics, including proposed changes to school funding and General Assistance for cities.
Maine’s open-meeting law requires officials to give a reference to specific law that allows them to close a proceeding from the public.
Lawmakers were unclear as to why they couldn’t conduct their caucus committee meetings during the public work sessions in the committee’s meeting room, which has seating for the public and a desk for all lawmakers and committee staff.
“As far as I know, we’ve been conducting ourselves properly,” Sen. Hill said.
A Bangor Daily News report described the Tuesday meetings as “behind closed doors.” Hill said she didn’t think that meant the public was “closed out.” But, she said, groups of committee members regularly meet in rooms “back there where the public doesn’t go.”