A list of Maine legislators is displayed Thursday in an otherwise empty House chamber at the State House. On May 10, the final day of the legislative session, the number of Democratic vacancies on the House floor that morning gave Republicans, who were missing seven members themselves, a 61-60 majority in the votes recorded. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It was over before it even began.

By the time the bell signaled the start of the final day of work for the 131st Legislature, Democrats had effectively handed over control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, who had lost nearly every policy battle this session because of their minority status.

In addition to being down two members because of early resignations, 19 other Democrats – roughly 25% of their caucus – didn’t cast veto override votes on a day their party was looking to save key bills, including a minimum wage for agricultural workers and higher taxes for wealthier residents.

The number of Democratic vacancies on the House floor that morning gave Republicans, who were missing seven members, a 61-60 majority in the votes recorded that morning. That advantage appeared to grow throughout the day, according to Republicans and other observers, as party leaders considered acting on another 50 spending bills that had already been approved by lawmakers but needed minor amendments before being sent to the governor.

A top Republican joked on the House floor that evening that his party held the majority for the first time in more than a decade.

But the morning roll-call votes and balance of power at the end of the day didn’t tell the whole story.

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A handful of Democrats who missed those roll-call votes on May 10 told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that they were actually at the State House that day but decided to attend a ceremonial bill-signing with Gov. Janet Mills when the House started taking up its business later than expected. They stayed in the governor’s cabinet room, located one floor below the House chamber, for photos with the chief executive and constituents, rather than cast override votes they were certain would fail anyway.  

The new law being celebrated will convert three vacant courthouse buildings in Biddeford, Sanford and York into affordable housing.

“As co-chair of the Housing Committee and sponsor of the courthouse bill, I wanted to be there to thank the housing authority staff and everyone who worked on the bill to make these properties available for housing in York County,” said Rep. Traci Gere, D-Kennebunkport.

Others who responded to the Press Herald’s questions about why they were absent on veto day said they had various conflicts and told party leaders they would be unable to make the May 10 session before it was scheduled, and that there was confusion about what bills would be taken up and when.

“My leadership was aware in the preceding weeks that I had family matters in flux that needed attention, so I was never a definite yes,” said Rep. Tiffany Roberts, D-South Berwick. “In conversations with some constituents who asked, I also let them know I did not know what votes, if any, I would be there for and why. I also inquired in the week leading up to that day what the schedule and timing may look like, but it was unknown.”

House Majority Leader Mo Terry, D-Gorham, said in an email that Democrats actually had a majority on the final day of the session, even though the numbers were not reflected in override votes or in the members who filled the House chamber at the end of the day. Terry said additional members were available if needed.

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“While there were some members from our caucus that were absent on Friday, the numbers you reference don’t actually represent our attendance accurately,” Terry said in an email to the Press Herald. “To be clear, on Friday we had the majority. Should we have decided to run the Table bills that day, we are confident we had the numbers to pass them. Just because a member was unable to be in their seat for an override vote does not mean they were absent from the building or unavailable for other votes.”

Ultimately, Democrats did not take any votes on the 50 spending bills because Mills had told them in a private meeting that she would not sign any of them, they said. Instead, after a nearly eight-hour recess, they voted to adjourn for the year at about 10 p.m. Little information was shared with the public about the House plans during that extended break, which came after the Senate had spent all morning amending and sending each bill to the lower chamber.

Terry said lawmakers who skipped the override votes did so after discussing it with leadership, who knew it would be impossible flip enough Republicans to secure a two-thirds vote to overturn any of Mills’ vetoes. By her count, Democrats had a maximum 69 of their 79 members in the building at one point, she said.

Terry defended her members’ decision to skip the override votes for the photo-op.

“Attending a bill-signing is an important opportunity for many of our members to connect with their constituents as well as advocates to highlight all of the good work they’ve done this session,” Terry said.

When contacted by the Press Herald, Democrats who missed roll-call votes on May 10 offered a variety of reasons, which they said were communicated to leadership ahead of time. Reasons include prior travel plans, family commitments, needing to work or care for a sick loved one.

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Reps. Gerry Runte of York and Kristi Mathieson of Kittery were attending college graduations out of state. Rep. Laura Supica of Bangor had work commitments, starting a new job as a restaurant server. Rep. Matt Moonen of Portland was on a planned trip out of state. And Rep. Sally Cluchey of Brunswick was caring for a family member being treated for cancer.

Reps. Michel Lajoie of Lewiston and James Boyle of Gorham both had medical appointments.

The five House Democrats who attended a ceremonial bill-signing said they knew none of Mills’ vetoes would be overturned because they lacked the necessary support of two-thirds of lawmakers.

Reps. Anne-Marie Mastraccio of Sanford and Marc Malon of Biddeford said they expected the House to hold the veto override votes long before 12:45 p.m., which is when they had scheduled the ceremonial signing for the affordable-housing law.

“I made the choice to stay where I was rather than miss an opportunity to celebrate the signing of a bill with those who came up from Sanford for that specific purpose,” Mastraccio said.

Mastraccio said she left about 5:30 p.m., because it was looking increasingly clear that the House wouldn’t take up any additional spending bills, as previously planned.

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Malon said he stayed throughout the evening.

“I was also prepared to vote at moments notice to support the funding measures which ultimately were not enacted, even as it became obvious that they were not going to make it,” Malon said in an email. “Once it became obvious that the governor was not going to accept additional bills … a number of members left. I stayed.”

Rep. Holly Sargent of York and Gere, the Kennebunkport lawmaker, said they were doing “other legislative business” during the veto override votes and stayed all day. Both were photographed with the governor at the ceremonial bill-signing, along with Rep. Erin Sheehan of Biddeford.

“I was present at veto day from start to bitter end,” Sargent said.

As for the uncertainty over what other bills House leaders planned to run that day after dealing with the vetoes, Terry said that was just part of the legislative process.

“The workflow of the Legislature and the timing of votes often depends on a variety of factors and can sometimes be unpredictable,” she said.

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