LEWISTON — State Sen. Nate Libby would like to see kids back in school this fall, but how to do that safely is “probably one of the most complex questions that state and local policymakers are facing,” he said Friday.

Ned Claxton, left, Nate Libby and Jeff Timberlake Submitted photos

“The prospect of public schools across Maine not opening and providing that key release valve for working parents to get back (to work) is problematic,” said Libby, D-Lewiston. “It’s going to take a lot of flexibility and a lot of money to do it right.”

During a virtual town hall hosted by the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, three local state senators talked about the state’s economy, deciding how to spend $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding in the face of $5 billion in requests and the challenges ahead for schools.

When the head of a local theater asked how they could guarantee arts and cultural institutions, particularly performing arts, would still be around when it’s time to reopen, Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said they can’t.

“It’s just not going to be fun the next couple of years trying to figure out what’s not going to happen,” he said. “The best case scenario is that we’re back in a reasonable condition in a year. There’s some tough choices to be made over 2020-21 that we’ll have to readjust the (state) budget. The worst case scenario we don’t want to talk about. I don’t think any of us can use the term ‘guarantee’ for any industry.”

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he was concerned about how many Maine businesses will survive the pandemic.

“Especially in the restaurant industry, in the tourism industry up and down the coast of Maine,” he said. “It’s very concerning to me as a businessman and as an eighth generation Mainer where we’re headed. … I think a lot of this is going to depend on what the revenue forecasting committee comes out with at the end of July, first of August. I don’t think anyone sitting on this Zoom meeting this morning has any visions that it’s going to be rosy.”

Libby said the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has spent weeks hearing from for- and non-profit businesses and government representatives one how to spend federal CARES Act dollars.

“(Gov. Janet Mills) has indicated to us in the Legislature that she very much wants to work with us to come up with a spending plan that reflects the greatest need out there in the economy,” he said. “We’re going to do our best in the next several weeks to try to come up with an agreement and a process for getting that money out the door, as well as preparations for a potential August special session to wrap up the remaining unfinished items that we have on our agenda.

“The landscape, from a political and fiscal perspective, all of that changed in March (when COVID-19 hit),” Libby added. “Bills that we were considering that had a funding component to them in Appropriation, likely all of them are going to go by the wayside. Any of the bills that created employer mandates as well are going to go by the wayside. What’s going to be left, I think, are a very targeted list of bills that are aimed at trying to support economic recovery, support the business community, support our service providers and the like.”

Even gathering to accomplish that is complicated, Libby said, with 186 lawmakers and 100-plus staff, and will likely be done off-site.

“The public health implications are very significant and we have to plan this out very carefully,” he said.

Claxton said the local delegation has come together to “continuously” lobby Maine’s U.S. senators and congressional representatives for more federal aid.

“If there’s a $5 billion ask out there and we’re sitting on $1.25 (billion), that’s not going to work,” he said. “We need another round of something.”

All three agreed on the importance of getting children back in school, with Timberlake adding that he hopes there’s local control when it comes to figuring out details since “schools, like towns, it’s not one size fits all.”

“The teachers who will be teaching need daycare and the daycare system has really suffered under this current system,” added Claxton. “Without the daycare and without some more resources for all kinds of folks who are stretched right now, we’re not going to get very many people back to work.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.