Gov. Janet Mills recently issued her first veto, and it must have been a bit of a shock to not only legislative leadership, but nearly the entire Legislature.

It wasn’t of some Republican bill that managed to squeak through somehow with bipartisan support, nor was it some liberal bill that Mills had opposed from the get-go, like an attempt to raise taxes. Instead, it was of a piece of legislation that – although sponsored by conservative Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick – sailed through the Legislature with widespread bipartisan support.

The bill, LD 822, would have banned the sale of gasoline with more than 10 percent ethanol, which isn’t currently sold anywhere in the state of Maine. LD 822 received a unanimous vote out of committee, so it passed the House and Senate unanimously as well, not even facing any roll-call votes.

During the committee hearing, the bill didn’t attract much attention, and the only testimony in opposition came from a D.C. lobbyist representing ethanol manufacturers. The Mills administration sent an official from the Department of Environmental Protection to offer testimony neither for nor against – so they weren’t opposed to it at the time, either. In her veto message, Mills claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence that the fuel endangered public health and it wasn’t sold in Maine anyway.

Regardless of how legitimate that explanation may be, the sudden reversal by the administration shows a lack of organization and poor communication between her office and legislative leadership. If she had those concerns about this bill all along, she should have made it clear from the beginning and gotten a divided vote out of committee. Instead, she’s put Democratic legislators in the awkward position of having to reverse their position on a bill in order to sustain her veto – which the House did on Thursday.

Gov. Mills, like Gov. LePage, is well within her right to veto any legislation she likes for any reason, without regard to  logic or to political impact for her own party in the Legislature. Still, when she suddenly decides to veto a piece of legislation that received overwhelming bipartisan support, it raises a number of questions – such as, did some lobbyist convince her at the last minute to veto the bill? If so, it would be interesting to know why they weren’t more on top of it from the beginning – the job of a lobbyist, after all, is to track legislation and influence the course of it throughout the process. They apparently either fell down on the job or planned from the beginning to depend on a gubernatorial veto rather than be more publicly involved throughout.

The larger question regarding Mills’ veto of LD 822 is if it is an early aberration or the beginning of a trend. While her immediate predecessor made prolific use of his veto power, former Gov. John Baldacci rarely utilized that authority at all, only vetoing eight bills total throughout his administration.

Baldacci was able to work with the Legislature effectively to avoid vetoing bills, working with leadership to tweak them to his liking. Of course, Baldacci enjoyed a Legislature under his party’s control throughout his time in office, unlike LePage, who frequently tangled with majority Democrats. Still, in the past Augusta Democrats operated as well-oiled machine; Mills’ veto shows that may no longer be the case.

This early veto could also have served as a test and a message, for both minority Republicans and members of her own party. Mills faces a much larger group of restive, activist liberal Democrats in the Legislature than Baldacci ever did. They have their own plans to raise taxes, increase gun control, expand welfare and grow government in ways that Mills, a relative moderate who knows she has to do well in the second district to win re-election, may not be willing to support. Her readiness to veto a seemingly harmless bill that passed unanimously sends a clear message to them not to step out of line – and that, like LePage, she won’t hesitate to use the powers of her office.

The willingness of Augusta Democrats to reverse their earlier position and sustain her veto shows that they know which side their bread is buttered on, despite the miscommunications. They’ll probably end up falling in line on the bigger issues this session, like the budget, taxes, and the CMP corridor. In the end, that’s not terrible for conservatives, as Mills might be able to reign in the more radical elements of her own party.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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