AUGUSTA — Pundits and experts Wednesday were scratching their heads over why Republican Gov. Paul LePage didn’t sign or veto a set of 19 bills when the Legislature took a break at the end of June.

A number of lawmakers and others say the bills became law without LePage’s signature because he failed to act on the legislation within the 10 days allowed under the law. LePage had previously promised to veto every bill that got to his desk, but he apparently abandoned that promise, and his staff says he intended to leave the 19 bills in question for the next lawmaking session.

A statement from LePage’s press secretary issued Wednesday morning suggests LePage intentionally decided not to sign or veto the bills, including one that allows asylum-seeking immigrants to receive General Assistance benefits for up to two years.

“This is not a pocket veto,” press secretary Adrienne Bennett wrote in a statement to the media. “As allowed by the Maine Constitution, the governor will submit the vetoes when the Legislature meets again for three days.”

LePage told reporters at the State House on Wednesday that he would take the matter to the courts if lawmakers pushed the issue. The governor referenced the the third part of Article IV of the state constitution, which defines the powers and time frames the Legislature must follow.

Asked what he would tell lawmakers who said he was misinterpreting the constitution, LePage said he would tell them to read the constitution.

“Even I can understand it, and I’m French,” LePage said.

But lawmakers said their actions when they closed out their work June 30 didn’t constitute final adjournment but was a long pause or recess in the first half of the 127th legislative session. They said the bills in question should become law without LePage’s signature. 

Final adjournment traditionally comes following a motion that includes the Latin phrase, “sine die” or “without day.” The phrase has the legal meaning of “with no appointed day for resumption.” 

Lawmakers are set to return Thursday, July 16, and last met on June 30, when they adjourned “at the call of the speaker of the House and the state Senate president.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said LePage’s interpretation of the law and the constitution were wrong, and the Legislature would move to place the bills into the state’s lawbooks.

“The constitution and historical precedent make clear that these bills are law,” Eves said in a prepared statement. “The governor is wrong.” 

Eves’ office noted that in 2012 during the 125th legislative session, when Republicans held majorities in both the House and Senate, the legislative leaders issued the similar joint adjournment order as they did on June 30, “adjourning to the call of the Senate President and Speaker of the House.”

That order passed May 17, 2012, and the Legislature returned on May 31 when the House addressed four vetoes returned to the House from LePage’s office on May 25. 

LePage’s argument is a new one for a Maine governor, according to Paul Mills, a Farmington-based attorney and state politics and history scholar.

Mills said Wednesday no other Maine governor to his knowledge has attempted a similar maneuver in an effort to kill legislation. He said the Legislature’s decision on June 30 to adjourn “at the call of the Senate President and the Speaker of the House” was commonplace and not the same as the Legislature’s “final adjournment.”

“What is unusual is the governor’s interpretation of the situation,” Mills said. “I can’t think of a historical parallel for it.”

Mills said the Legislature or LePage or both could seek a declaratory judgment from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, but the court also would have to decide whether the issue resulted in a so-called “solemn occasion,” a matter so serious they must act on it immediately.

In her statement Wednesday, Bennett wrote that the next time the Legislature returns for three or more days it would be given the bills with veto messages.

“The Legislature can choose to meet for at least three days now, or they can wait until they come back in January,” Bennett wrote. “Either way, they will have ample time to thoughtfully consider these vetoes, rather than rushing through them in another veto-override spree without understanding what they are voting on.”

Political operatives on both the left and the right said it appeared LePage’s administration had made a mistake and was attempting to justify it with a unique argument and the threat of a court action.

“They made a serious mistake and now they are trying to scramble to find the best defense that they can mount to say it wasn’t a mistake, that there was intent, that it was legal and it is in the confines of the constitution,” said David Farmer, a Democratic political operative and former deputy chief of staff for Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Farmer also worked on U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for the governor’s office

Farmer said statements from LePage and his staff didn’t hold up to scrutiny. “He says it’s not a pocket veto, but then they apply the circumstances under which he puts a bill in his pocket,” Farmer said.

Lance Dutson, a Republican who worked on the re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2014, said there was no practical reason for LePage not to simply veto the bills he opposed, especially ones he knew would be sustained by Republicans in the Legislature.

“It’s just so convoluted, ” Dutson said. “And I think what it comes down to is for some reason, someone screwed up and misinterpreted this and now after the fact they are trying to justify it.”

Dutson said LePage’s administration should answer the question of why they tried this instead of just vetoing the bills.

“I think they should be straight about it,” Dutson said. “Did they screw up and now they are trying to fix it? Or is there some plan and if there is a plan, what the heck is it, because it is not obvious to anybody else.”

Requests to LePage’s staff for a comment on why the governor had changed his tack on vetoes were not returned Wednesday.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who has been a strong LePage supporter and an outspoken opponent of providing General Assistance welfare benefits to immigrants without legal work papers, said he was perturbed that the political wrangling in Augusta could result in the immigrant welfare bill, LD 369, becoming law.

“I am telling you, I am extremely teed off here,” Macdonald said. “If 369 gets passed, well, Lewiston taxpayers have been back-stabbed.”

Macdonald said the bill was originally drafted in his office, with the help of Lewiston and Auburn staffers and Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.

“It was originally designed to prohibit asylum-seekers from making us keep having to support them,” he said. “It was changed and now it goes entirely in another direction. Now, if it becomes law, we have to carry them for two more years. I am really aggravated that this might become law.”

Macdonald said he’s waiting to see what happens.

“But I intend to make a lot of noise about this,” he said.

Sun Journal Staff Writer Scott Taylor contributed to this report.

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 19 bills in question  

LD 25, “An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Uses,” sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

LD 78, “An Act Regarding Limitations on Certain Storm Water Fees,” sponsored by Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston.

LD 113, “An Act To Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offenses,” sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

LD 234, “An Act To Adjust Appropriations and Allocations from the General Fund and Other Funds for the Expenditures of State Government for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2015,” (Emergency) (Governor’s Bill), sponsored by Rep. Margaret Rotund, D-Lewiston.

LD 299, “An Act To Protect Children in Municipal and School Facilities by Requiring Boiler Inspections,” sponsored by Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick.

LD 369, “An Act To Align Municipal General Assistance Programs with the Immigration Status Policies of the Department of Health and Human Services,” sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.

LD 522, “An Act To Clarify a Recently Enacted Law Designed To Expand the Number of Qualified Educators,” sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting.

LD 722, “An Act To Strengthen Penalties for Abuse of General Assistance,” sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn.

LD 756, “An Act To Enhance the Address Confidentiality Program Regarding Property Records,” sponsored by Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town.

LD 822, “An Act To Allow a Former Spouse of a Member of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System To Begin Collecting Benefits When the Former Spouse Reaches the Member’s Retirement Age,” sponsored by Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham.

LD 870, “An Act To Amend the Maine Spruce Budworm Management Laws,” Sponsored by Sen. James Dill, D-Old Town.

LD 1013, “An Act To Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners,” sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.

LD 1039, “An Act To Amend the Polygraph Examiners Act,” sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland.

LD 1085, “An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Right To Know Advisory Committee Concerning Receipt of a Request for Public Records,” sponsored by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.

LD 1108, “An Act To Protect Children and the Public from Electronic Cigarette Vapor,” sponsored by Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan.

LD 1134, “An Act To Require the Department of Health and Human Services To Distribute Information Regarding Down Syndrome to Providers of Prenatal and Postnatal Care and to Genetic Counselors,” sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough.

LD 1185, “An Act To Establish the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund,” sponsored by Rep. Norman Higgins, R-Dover-Foxcroft.

LD 1303, “An Act To Stabilize and Streamline the Department of Environmental Protection’s Ground Water Oil Clean-up Fund and Maine Coastal and Inland Surface Oil Clean-up Fund,” sponsored by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton.

LD 1391, “An Act Regarding the Treatment of Forensic Patients,” sponsored by Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock.

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