Maine Governor LePage demonstrates how not to veto a bill

Governing is hard, and it’s not always just the poisonous, partisan politics or tricks of the media which can trip you up. There’s so many rules to follow! Who can keep track of them all? That seems to be the situation which hit the Republican Governor of Maine this month when he apparently attempted to “pocket veto” nearly two dozen bills passed by the legislature. (A “pocket veto” is basically when a bill dies after passage in the legislature with no action taken by the executive.)

Unfortunately, like most states (and the federal government) there are specific rules for how to handle a veto. And in Maine the rules are rather specific in terms of when and how the Governor must either sign, veto or pass on any legislation which is handed off to him. In the case of 19 recent bills, there seems to have been some confusion.

Gov. Paul LePage has thrown a new wrench into the gears of the Legislature, this time with a move to “pocket veto” at least 19 bills, despite the fact that conditions for such a maneuver have not been met.

On Tuesday, the state’s revisor of statutes, Suzanne Gresser, confirmed 19 bills had not been returned to her office by LePage after the 10-day timeframe for LePage to veto or sign the legislation had passed. Without having taken any action, the bills should have returned to Gresser to be chaptered — the official process for becoming law.

When asked about the delay, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett pointed to a section from “ Maine’s Path of Legislation,” a publication by the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate, which outlined the process of the pocket veto.

Simple enough, eh? The legislature has adjourned for the year with ten days passing and there’s no signature, so the bills don’t go into law. But the legislature apparently anticipated this and say that they haven’t really adjourned.

The only hangup is the Legislature has not adjourned. Knowing it needed to give LePage up to 10 days to act on bills it has passed, the House and Senate on June 30 went “at ease” until July 16. By then, LePage would have had to act. Further questions sent to Bennett about LePage’s actions were not answered.

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, was dumbfounded by LePage’s maneuver.

“I can’t even process this right now, that this is his latest move,” McCabe said Tuesday. “It’s very clear, as far as the role the governor has, when it comes to bills — whether he signs them, not signs them or vetoes them. To hold them for an arbitrary period of time doesn’t really work. He can’t rewrite the rules.

The pocket veto is sort of a back door maneuver to begin with, circumventing the whole idea of the balance of power between the branches on a technicality. But by the same token, it’s a valid legal procedure, so I can understand how an executive facing a hostile legislature might want to take advantage of it. If you pull the trigger and veto a bill and the opposition has the votes to override it, the bill becomes law anyway. If you can shove it off until the next session there is always the chance that the political winds will shift or there will be another election and you might fare better next time.

But you still have to keep your eye on the ball and know the rules. Unless everyone else is missing something key here, Governor LePage misplayed his hand. When the pocket veto isn’t an option an executive still “gets credit” for vetoing a bill even if it becomes law. There’s only so much you can do when your party loses control of the legislative branch. If LePage had just taken out his pen and vetoed the bills nobody could have faulted him for not standing by his principles. But this turns the entire debate into a joke and paints the administration with the patina of incompetence. Poorly played unless he can pull out some cards showing that the legislature couldn’t go into “at ease” mode.