By Mario Moretto
Thanks to Gov. Paul LePage, the schedule for the Legislature's return to Augusta on July 16 is much lighter than lawmakers had anticipated.
The Republican Senate president and Democratic speaker of the House both said Monday that when they reconvene for the first time in more than two weeks on Thursday, they intend to wrap up what little work remains on their respective calendars and formally end legislative work for the year.
"When we are done with that business, the expectation is the first regular session of the 127th Legislature will adjourn sine die," said Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
"Sine die" is Latin for "without day," marking the formal end of the session as opposed to a temporary recess.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he planned for the House to formally adjourn Thursday as well.
The presiding officers' plans to close the session this week after just one day means the status of dozens of bills stagnating in LePage's office will continue as an open question.
When they left Augusta on June 30, lawmakers expected LePage to veto many of the dozens of bills they had sent his way, as he had been doing for weeks. The plan was to take up those vetoes when they returned this week.
However, the governor is sitting on 71 bills enacted by the Legislature and is arguing that lawmakers had "adjourned" on June 30, preventing him from sending vetoes back until after they return to session for three days.
Democrats -- backed by Attorney General Janet Mills -- say the Legislature did not adjourn, but simply took a recess. For that reason, they say, LePage has missed his 10-day window allowed by the Maine Constitution to veto bills, and that all the bills delayed in his office will become law whether he signs them or not.
The Legislature's nonpartisan Office of the Revisor has begun putting the bills officially into the law books, a move LePage's attorney decried and unsuccessfully asked be ceased.
The bills -- or laws -- in question include several contentious pieces of legislation, notably one that would guarantee legally present asylum seekers and other immigrants access to General Assistance benefits, an expansion of Medicaid to cover family planning for more women and a $15 million senior housing bond -- all of which were opposed by LePage.
Regardless of whose legal analysis about "adjournment" ultimately wins the day, lawmakers will not be taking up scores of vetoes on Thursday as they had expected.
Instead, they'll take up the sparse agenda of work they left when they went home on June 30. Remaining work in the House includes a casino bill that's still on the table and final votes on motions to carry several other spending and bond initiatives over until the next regular session, which begins in January.
Meanwhile, the Senate must decide whether to sustain or overturn several vetoes that were already in its possession on June 30. Among those vetoed pieces of legislation is an effort by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, which would force LePage to authorize conservation bonds that already have been approved by voters. The Senate also has several bills that must be carried over or dispensed, including an effort already approved in the House that would enshrine equal rights between the sexes in Maine's Constitution.
At least one lawmaker is unhappy with Eves' and Thibodeau's plan to draw the session to a close without consideration of the bills sitting on LePage's desk.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the Legislature should wait for a "resolution as to the status of these bills" before adjourning. He has urged the Legislative Council -- composed of the leadership from both parties -- to meet and devise a path forward.
"Without any resolution as to the status of these bills, whether by the executive branch or the legislative branch by posing a question to the Law Court, I do not believe we should adjourn sine die," he said Monday. "I believe House Republicans want an opportunity to cast a vote on any potential vetoes of these important bills."
An opinion from the Law Court seems to be the only way the question of the bills' status will be resolved. LePage said last week that he might request such an opinion, but told Maine Public Broadcasting Network on Monday that he may not do so until January, when the Legislature returns for its second regular session.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said the Legislature could easily make the issue moot by agreeing to return for four days, at which point LePage would release the vetoes.
"We hope that the Legislature will want to take a thoughtful approach," Bennett said. "It is in their court at this point. If this needs to go to a higher court -- no pun intended -- the governor will keep that option open."
LePage, convinced the bills are not law, has indicated he will not enforce them. Eves said in a statement Monday that such inaction would "hurt the people we were all sent to Augusta to represent."
"The governor's decision to disregard the law will have a very real impact on Maine families, seniors and veterans who came to the State House to advocate for health care, tax credits, housing and other key initiatives" included in the bills in question, Eves said.
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