|7/23/2015 12:13:00 PM|
Eye on Augusta: Grueling Legislative Session Adjourns, But Court Battles & Investigations Continue
|Because the governor had left for the day, LePage representative Kathleen Newman, far right, received the traditional message from House members that the House of Representatives was officially adjourned for the year. (JULY 16 Photo by Andi Parkinson)|
by Andy OBrienAround 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 16, two select groups of lawmakers from the Maine House and Senate gathered to deliver their traditional separate messages to Gov. Paul LePage to inform him that both chambers of the Legislature had officially adjourned sine die ("without a day") until January. Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason (R-Andro-scoggin) jokingly wore a hard hat in reference to the constant attacks the governor and his allies have hurled at Senate Republicans on talk radio and in robocalls to their constituents in recent months. Not surprisingly, Gov. LePage had already left for the day, once again avoiding the tradition of the governor delivering a parting address to the Legislature upon its official adjournment, as LePage has done since he began his first term in office. His absence was likely a relief for many lawmakers, anyway.
And so legislative leaders gave their usual speeches to thank their staff and congratulate themselves on passing the $6.7 billion biennial budget without shutting the state down. Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) hailed the revised budget for cutting income taxes and partially maintaining revenue sharing to towns. He also praised the Legislature for repealing the requirement that gun owners apply for a permit and receive training courses and criminal background checks to carry concealed firearms.
"I believe we should all be proud of the work we have accomplished, and I look forward to seeing my fellow senators when we return in January 2016," said Thibodeau.
While the session was certainly not as productive as it would have been had there not been divided government, the fact that the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-controlled House together overrode 126 of the governor's 178 vetoes this session shows a significant level of bipartisanship. Out of 1,464 bills considered this session, 436 bills ultimately became law.
"When the governor basically decided to insult every single legislator, I think we passed more legislation and overrode more vetoes than we ever would have without his behavior," said Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center (D-Rockland).
Other legislators were more blunt.
"Clearly, LePage and [House Republican Leader] Ken Fredette had a destructive plan in mind from the very beginning in January," said Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship). "Besides killing good legislation, LePage has single handedly destroyed the image of Maine across the entire nation. We are now a laughingstock. It's a fitting end to the Legislative session that Governor LePage is under serious investigation."
But amid all of the bitter partisanship and frustration, the House and Senate finally adjourned with a bang of the gavel "in honor and lasting memory" of Rep. Bill Noon of Sanford, who had died the day before after a long battle with cancer.
LePage Goes Back to the Supreme Court
But although the Legislature has left Augusta for the year, the fate of 65 new laws won't be decided until the state's highest court weighs in. House and Senate leaders say they are law. LePage says they're not.
It all began at the height of the governor's "Vetomania" in early July, when he failed to veto 65 bills within the 10-day time limit as required in Maine's Constitution. The bills, now law, include a measure to restore welfare to asylum seekers, which Republicans were intent on killing by denying Democrats the two-thirds votes needed to override a certain veto.
The governor claims that the Legislature adjourned on June 30 and that he still has time to veto the bills. Legislative leaders and Attorney General Janet Mills point out that the 65 bills are already law because the Legislature only took a recess and did not adjourn until its official sine die declaration on July 16, which was long after the veto deadline.
On the morning of July 16 as the House and Senate finished up their business, a group of the LePage's staffers walked upstairs with armloads of folders containing the 65 vetoed bills dated July 16. When pressed by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) to act on the vetoes, Speaker Eves confirmed that the House Clerk received "the 65 veto attempts," but that they are no longer bills.
"The governor cannot veto a law," Eves replied.
Both Eves and Senate President Thibodeau directed House and Senate staff to return the bills back downstairs.
On Monday, July 20, Chief Justice Saufley confirmed that the Supreme Judicial Court had received a "solemn occasion" request from the governor for Maine's highest court to determine the fate of the 65 bills/laws. The court has requested that briefs be filed by this Friday, July 24, and oral arguments from both sides will be heard on Friday, July 31, at 9 a.m. at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.
House Speaker Eves and Senate President Thibodeau announced Tuesday that they have hired attorney Timothy Woodcock to defend the Legislature's position that the bills are law.
"As Senate President, it is my responsibility to defend the actions and protect the integrity of the Maine Senate," wrote Thibodeau in a statement. "Unfortunately many senators were looking forward to the opportunity to sustain some of the governor's anticipated vetoes."
However, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) has signaled that his caucus stands with LePage.
"Should the Law Court side with the governor, House Republicans stand ready to return to the capital to vote up or down on these bills," said Fredette in a statement.
Eves urged the court to take immediate action to ensure that the laws are enforced, writing in a statement, "The Governor's legal gymnastics to rewrite the meaning of the term 'adjournment' in the Maine Constitution should not be tolerated by any branch of government, especially the judicial branch."
It could be several weeks before the Law Court reaches a decision. Most of the controversial bills in question, such as the General Assistance for asylum seekers, won't take effect until October. In the meantime, with state GA for asylum seekers withheld, Portland has voted to raise $2.6 million in local funds to aid the legal noncitizens for up to a year. The change was made after the city received additional education dollars from the state budget, which was revised by the Legislature despite the governor's threats. LePage has since vowed to challenge Portland's policy, which he has called a "shell game with taxpayers' money."
Meanwhile, an independent watchdog agency is continuing its investigation into allegations of blackmail and abuse of power surrounding the governor's threats to withhold funding to the school Good Will-Hinckley in order to pressure it to fire Speaker Eves. The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability says it will likely deliver its findings in September.
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