The party’s not over in Augusta

It is all-out war in Augusta. Though politicians are well-versed in making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, we have before us now not just an ear but an entire pig. No way is it going to end up a silk purse.

Remember when we thought a missing “and” was a big deal in the energy bill? Bah! Peanuts! Now what constitutes adjournment is in question, and the stakes are high. The Legislature may adjourn to a date certain or to a date uncertain but anticipated and still be considered in session. So when is “adjourned” truly adjourned?

Each Legislature has two Regular Sessions, with starting dates fixed by the state constitution. Completion of a session is not so precise; the constitution permits them to “enact appropriate statutory limits” to the length of a session.

The Legislature adjourns after every legislative day, but not “finally.” It specifies that it will be back and when. Proof that adjournment is a daily event is found in language that appears on House and Senate calendars. The section titled “Unfinished Business” begins thusly: “The following matters, in consideration of which the House [or Senate] was engaged at the time of adjournment yesterday … .”

So if adjournment happens every day the Legislature meets, how does it adjourn for good? We have all learned a little Latin lately, and we now know that “sine die” signals the final end. It means “without day,” meaning the Legislature does not expect to return until the start of the next Regular Session.

The Legislature adjourns “sine die” when the work of a legislative session is complete, be it the First Regular Session (first year of a two-year legislature) or the Second Regular Session. Should circumstances require the body to reconvene prior to the next Regular Session, it must convene in Special Session.

On June 30, the Legislature adjourned “until the call of the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House, respectively, when there is a need to conduct business, or consider possible objections of the governor.”

This order anticipated the need for the Legislature to address additional gubernatorial vetoes of bills passed in the last days of June, but the governor thought he saw an opportunity and quickly claimed that the adjournment allowed him to simply let a batch of bills in his possession die.

A highly technical debate ensued. Governor: “You adjourned!” Legislature: “Did not!” Governor: “Did too!” Legislature: “Did not!” And that is about where it stands. Opinionators started piling on. We got severely lawyered up on the banks of the Kennebec.

The governor’s lawyers say he is right – no surprise there – and there has been general scoffing and mocking from the second floor regarding the inability of legislators to read a simple little constitution.

Various legislators, including Republicans, many of whom are lawyers themselves, disagree. There has been much shaking of heads over a governor who either can’t count the number of days he has to file vetoes or doesn’t understand the difference between “adjourn” and “adjourn.”

The list of those who think the governor is in error is compelling, and it is growing. At the top is Attorney General Janet Mills, who issued a 4-page opinion in response to a request from legislators. In brief, she says Governor LePage blew it. Their very public enmity notwithstanding, the attorney general would not be saying it if she didn’t think she could back it up.

Then there is Paul Mills, and yes, he is Janet Mills’ brother, but he is also a veritable savant when it comes to Maine political history. When he says no governor has ever attempted this before, you can bet that no governor has ever attempted this before. And when he says the June 30 adjournment was not final adjournment, well… .

Another piece of evidence cited in the final/not final debate is the absence of the necessary pomp and circumstance at the time of the Legislature’s June 30 adjournment. “Sine die” adjournment is accompanied by a formal message taken in person from the Legislature to the governor’s office, informing him that the business of the Legislature has been completed and inviting him to address them should he so choose. None of that happened.

Caught in the crossfire are the hapless denizens of the non-partisan legislative offices who are going about their customary work of “chaptering” (embedding into existing law) newly passed laws, including those the governor failed to veto. In an extraordinary measure, the governor’s legal counsel sent a letter asking them to cease and desist. As a legislative office, they are simply not under the direction of the governor.

LePage let another veto deadline expire last Saturday night, bringing to 70 the total number of bills that might become law despite his intention to suppress them. We may well be headed for court, but however this ends, it is hard to picture anything but open hostility between the legislative and executive branches for the remaining three years of the LePage administration.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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