AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that his administration is preparing a request for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule on a dispute with the Legislature over 70 new laws that the governor failed to veto within the 10-day period outlined in the Maine Constitution.

“We’re preparing the question right now and we’re going to send it over,” LePage said in an interview Tuesday morning with Bangor radio station WVOM.

 LePage will argue through his legal counsel that a “solemn occasion” exists that requires the court’s opinion. If the justices agree, they will decide whether the Legislature adjourned or merely recessed on June 30, with an intention to return Thursday to complete the session.

It’s an important legal distinction, because if the court concludes that the Legislature did not adjourn, then time has run out for LePage to veto the 70 bills. If the court concludes the Legislature did adjourn, then the 10-day deadline doesn’t apply and LePage can submit vetoes three days after lawmakers come back into session.

A LePage administration spokesman said the request hadn’t been sent as of Tuesday evening.

“The question is being drafted and reviewed by legal staff. It has not been sent to the law court yet,” Peter Steele said in an email.

It’s unclear how quickly the Supreme Judicial Court will respond to the governor’s request to rule on the matter. However, it seems unlikely that the court will have time to review a solemn occasion before the Legislature reconvenes – and likely adjourns – Thursday.

The contested bills affect policy in many areas, including General Assistance for asylum seekers, expanded use of a medication used in drug overdoses, property tax breaks for Vietnam War veterans, and birth control for MaineCare recipients.

The issue is already settled in the view of most top lawmakers, Attorney General Janet Mills and the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, the nonpartisan legislative office that began writing the bills into law last week. House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, both said they plan to adjourn the legislative session Thursday, closing the books on the first session and rebuking the governor’s assertion that he still has time to veto the legislation ensnared in the conflict.

The governor also seemed to downplay the collective impact of the 70 bills that the Office of the Revisor of Statutes is chaptering into law – a process the administration attempted to halt last week when it accused the nonpartisan office of acting “overly partisan.” At one point LePage told WVOM that most of the bills were “innocuous” or were resolves that won’t have a significant effect on Mainers.

The governor also acknowledged the possibility that his interpretation of the Constitution may be incorrect. LePage sought to frame his dispute with the Legislature as an attempt to follow the intent of the law. He reiterated his argument that the state Constitution is silent on the definition of adjournment – the cornerstone of his argument that he has more time to issue vetoes.

“Quite frankly, if I’m wrong, so be it,” he said. “That’s not the issue. It’s not who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s, ‘Let’s do it correctly.’ ”

ATTORNEY GENERAL, GOVERNOR DISAGREE

The conflict centers on LePage’s assertion that the Maine Constitution doesn’t make a distinction between a brief adjournment and an adjournment that ends the legislative session. He and his chief legal counsel have argued this ambiguity affects how much time he has to veto legislation.

Critics, including Mills, counter that the governor’s argument ignores other provisions in the constitution, including one key phrase that states a bill not returned by the governor within 10 days – excluding Sundays – “shall have the same force and effect as if the governor had signed it unless the Legislature by their adjournment prevent its return.”

Mills, in a four-page, non-legally-binding opinion released Friday, wrote that the Legislature’s temporary adjournment on June 30 did not prevent the return of the bills because lawmakers signaled their intent to reconvene to vote on the governor’s vetoes. Additionally, Mills argued, the Legislature “decides when it adjourns, not another branch of government.”

“Bills that have not been returned to the Legislature with the objections of the governor within 10 days of being presented to the governor, excluding Sundays, have now become finally enacted in accordance with (Maine’s Constitution),” wrote Mills, a Democrat who has clashed often with LePage, a Republican. “Those that are emergency bills are in full force and effect.”

Two senators – one Democrat and one Republican – requested Mills’ opinion after LePage said the Legislature had adjourned, thereby allowing him to delay handing down vetoes until lawmakers had come back into session and met for at least four more days.

LePage sought a “solemn occasion” finding in a previous disagreement with Mills over two questions the governor posed to the court in January about the scope of the attorney general’s power. The court issued its opinion in March, ruling in LePage’s favor on one count and for Mills on the other.

One Republican, House Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, released a statement Monday saying that the Legislature should not adjourn for the session. Fredette, one of LePage’s few allies during a bruising legislative session, said House Republicans “want an opportunity to cast a vote on any potential vetoes of these important bills.”

POWER PLAYS, PUZZLING COMMENT

While Fredette’s statement may foreshadow jockeying on the floor of the House, the governor’s statement last week that he won’t enforce the new laws has some lawmakers worried. Given the wide range of policy areas and functions of the bills, it’s unclear how the governor could block their implementation without exposing his office to legal action. However, LePage has demonstrated a propensity for using the power of his office to stymie policies or initiatives that he opposes, including the release of over $11 million in voter-approved bonds for conservation projects – an issue that the Legislature will attempt to resolve Thursday.

At least one of the 70 bills, a proposal that would allow asylum seekers to receive General Assistance aid for up to two years, is on hold. That’s because an effort led byconservative activists to overturn the law at the ballot box is already underway. The effort, known as a people’s veto, effectively suspends the law until Mainers either vote on it or it fails to meet the requirements to become a ballot question.

The newly chaptered General Assistance law and the campaign to overturn it made some of LePage’s comments to WVOM puzzling. He erroneously told the radio station that he vetoed the bill “on time” despite there being no record of it. According to the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, the bill became law July 7.


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