AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of concerned Mainers, including three Republican lawmakers, has launched a petition drive for a people’s veto of a controversial bill that extends General Assistance benefits to some immigrants for up to two years.
The launch of the drive pushes implementation of the already controversial law deeper into legal limbo until the public votes on the measure, which likely wouldn’t be until June 2016 at the earliest.
Stavros Mendros, a former Republican legislator and city councilor from Lewiston, filed preliminary paperwork for the petition drive on Friday, according to information provided by the secretary of state’s office. Mendros and four others seek to repeal LD 369, which was sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.
The proposal originally sought to eliminate General Assistance benefits for certain immigrants but was amended to allow the benefits to continue for up to 24 months. General Assistance, which is administered by municipalities but funded jointly by state and local governments, provides emergency aid for housing, medicine and other basic needs.
“My bill was amended to do the exact opposite of what it originally was supposed to do,” said Brakey. “I’ve been vocally opposed to it going into place.”
The citizen veto initiative makes contact with a number of crossroads of controversy. Barring General Assistance for some immigrants — such as asylum seekers and those who are in the U.S. illegally — has long been a goal of Gov. Paul LePage and many Republican lawmakers, including Brakey.
Furthermore, there is disagreement between LePage and others about whether LD 369 is in fact on track to become law without the governor’s signature. It is among 70 bills that were sent to LePage by the Legislature and which LePage did not act upon within his 10-day window to do so.
LePage contends that he has more time to act on the bills — by either signing or vetoing them — because of the way the Legislature adjourned on June 30.
The Legislature, the attorney general and the revisor of statutes’ office consider the 70 bills to be in law, but LePage has said he might take the issue to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. He contends that the Maine Constitution allows him to hold the bills until legislators return to session for three days.
Democratic legislative leaders, Attorney General Janet Mills and the revisor’s office are proceeding on the interpretation that the June 30 adjournment was done in such a manner that the three-day window allowed by the Constitution does not apply.
“The law the applicants are seeking to veto is one of the 19 that became law without the governor’s signature,” wrote Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “It has been presented to our office as chaptered law, so we are going ahead with processing the application.”
Mendros said he believes that LePage is correct in his interpretation of constitutional rules of adjournment but filed the people’s veto paperwork now to ensure that the petition drive can move forward.
“I think the governor has a valid argument but you never know how the courts are going to rule,” said Mendros. “I don’t want to miss the opportunity. It’s always good to have a Plan B.”
On the issue of LePage’s interpretation of adjournment, Brakey said, “there is a case to be made either way.”
“I don’t know that a people’s veto is the best way to do it or not,” said Brakey. “We’ll have to wait until the dust settles.”
Mendros said that he is working toward having the question on the June 2016 primary ballot because the deadline for a petition for a citizen’s veto this November is in mid-August. He said he intends to collect the signatures with the help of both volunteer and paid signature gatherers.
Along with Mendros and Brakey, signing the preliminary paperwork were Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea; Rep. Randall Greenwood, R-Wales; Alicia McClure of Lisbon and Loretta County of Lisbon.
The group has 10 business days after the Legislature’s adjournment to submit a proposed ballot question to the secretary of state’s office. They must collect and certify as valid more than 61,000 signatures from throughout Maine.
Alain Nahimana, immigrants’ rights and racial justice organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, said the effort to veto the bill is “against all human rights standards.”
“Never before has a referendum been suggested to unfairly target such a small group of vulnerable people and such a tiny amount of money in the state budget,” said Nahimana in a written statement. “The campaign these Republican operatives are proposing could easily cost more than the assistance itself.”
Maine’s General Assistance program costs approximately $24 million a year at the state and local level.
Legislators are scheduled to return to the State House on Thursday. Legislative leaders have said they plan to adjourn formally on that day.