AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature on Thursday shut the books on a roller coaster of a session that stretched to become the longest in recent memory.
It was six months pockmarked by gridlock, controversy and political brinksmanship that some feared would push the state into a government shutdown.
But crisis was averted when a controversial budget deal — hammered out in secret by legislative leaders — passed over the governor’s objections.
Despite the division in leadership that saw Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate, lawmakers even passed a few new policy initiatives, including the elimination of the state’s concealed firearm permit requirement.
“This session will be remembered as one for the record books,” said Senate Democratic leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “It will be studied, analyzed and looked at in so many ways, from so many different angles. Every pundit will tell us what we did right, what we did wrong. It’s already started to happen.”
By Thursday, there was little left to do for lawmakers, who made quick work — by legislative standards — of the remaining agenda before adjourning around 6 p.m. with no plan to return until the second session begins in January.
But it was the bills that weren’t on the agenda that will have state political observers talking through the summer.
Too late to veto?
The Maine House and Senate both ignored dozens of vetoes delivered Thursday by Gov. Paul LePage, all but ensuring that a weeklong dispute over those vetoes will be decided by the Supreme Judicial Court.
It was the latest development in a bizarre dispute that has enveloped Augusta for a week. LePage held 71 bills for longer than the 10 days normally afforded him to veto legislation, prompting many lawmakers and the state’s attorney general to declare the bills had become law without the governor’s signature.
On Thursday, LePage delivered vetoes of 65 of those bills (the rest he returned unsigned) and urged the Legislature to consider his vetoes. Both House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said they would not let the vetoes hit the floors of their respective chambers.
LePage argued that because lawmakers left Augusta on June 30, he had been prevented from returning the vetoes before the 10 days had expired. The Maine Constitution states that if a Legislature adjourns, the governor may hold bills until three days after they return.
The House and Senate passed a temporary adjournment order on June 30 to give LePage time to act on the bills. Top lawmakers and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat elected by the Legislature, said that temporary recess was not adjournment, and thus did not give LePage more time to act.
“My goal is to ensure only bills that represent good public policy become law, and I am exercising the power granted to me by the Constitution to do so,” LePage said in a letter accompanying the vetoes. “I hope you will vote to sustain all of these vetoes at your earliest opportunity.”
Eves rejected the vetoes as out of order.
“You cannot veto a law,” Eves said in a statement. “This legislation is already law, in accordance with the Constitution, history and precedent. The governor’s veto attempts are out of order and in error. He missed the deadline to veto the bills.”
In the Senate, Thibodeau was tight-lipped about the disputed vetoes, but dismissed them as well.
Only House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, has backed the governor. He said the vetoes should have been considered
“These vetoes have been delivered. They’re there. We should act on them. There’s no reason we shouldn’t,” he said in an interview Thursday.
Among the bills LePage attempted to veto was legislation that would guarantee legally present immigrants who are seeking asylum will be eligible for General Assistance, a program that gives temporary aid to poor Maine residents for existential needs such as shelter, food and heat.
The bill had become a flashpoint in the Legislature, and many suspected House Republicans would muster the numbers to sustain LePage’s veto, had it come to the floor.
LePage said he would seek an opinion from the state’s Supreme Judicial Court if the Legislature closed the session without considering his vetoes. After the Legislature adjourned, a LePage spokeswoman said the request could be made as soon as Friday.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.