Inside the chaotic, confusing end of the 131st Legislature

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May 13—When lawmakers returned to Augusta last week to take up a half dozen gubernatorial vetoes, they seemed intent on forcing a confrontation with Gov. Janet Mills by sending her roughly 80 additional spending bills despite stern warnings from her office not to do so.

In rapid succession Friday morning, Senate Democrats enacted about 30 additional bills, sending them without changes to Mills. Shortly thereafter, they sent about 50 other amended bills back to the House of Representatives for additional votes.

But the plan quickly fell apart after many Democrats in the House of Representatives didn't show up for what is known as "veto day," and those who did could not agree on a path forward amid legal questions about whether they could even take up additional bills after the Legislature's statutory adjournment date of April 17.

A two-hour recess to figure out a strategy turned into seven hours. By then, Democrats had lost so many members who left the Capitol that Republicans actually outnumbered them when the House reconvened shortly after 9 p.m.

The moment did not go unnoticed by Republicans.

"Madam speaker," House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said with a grin. "I present to you the first House Republican majority since 2012."

Soon after, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, announced the end of the session.

It was a chaotic, confusing end to the 131st Legislature, a contentious two-year session that saw pitched partisan battles over abortion, gender-affirming care, parental rights and criminal justice reform. It was one in which Democrats used their majorities in both the House and Senate, as well as Blaine House, to advance their policy agenda and pass budgets over the objections from Republicans, who have not controlled either chamber since 2019.

Talbot Ross did not respond to an interview request Monday, but her spokesperson, Mary-Erin Casale, said in an email that House leaders had planned to follow the Senate's actions and pass additional spending bills. But they ultimately realized the effort would be futile after conversations throughout the day with caucus members, the Mills administration, Senate Democratic leaders and the attorney general.

"These careful deliberations took time and did cause a delay," Casale said. "When it became abundantly clear that the governor was not going to accept any additional legislation and she rejected the bills that were brought to her by the Senate, it was apparent that the only option was to adjourn the legislative session. Again, that decision, too, required conversation with the above listed stakeholders and resulted in some members choosing to depart for the day facing that reality."

As the end of the day drew near, a dejected Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, used his final remarks on the Senate floor to criticize the governor, saying that she refused to accept the roughly 30 bills enacted that day — a characterization disputed by the governor's office, which is located on the second floor of the State House.

"So the challenge of tonight, seeing bills we passed, enacted (and) had sent down to the second floor, not once but twice, and be rejected, is something I never thought I'd see happen here," said Jackson, who has led the Senate for six years and can't run for reelection because of term limits.

The governor's office disputes that characterization. Spokesperson Ben Goodman said Mills temporarily declined to accept the bills, because of House Republican objections to take them up to begin with. Goodman said precedent exists for lawmakers to take up a few other bills on veto day, but it's usually done with the consent of both parties.

"The governor, in addition to her concerns about the fiscal sustainability of the bills, conveyed to Democratic leaders her assessment that they were operating on legally questionable ground by considering and passing bills on such an unprecedented scale on veto day — one that would garner objections from Republicans and as a result invite legal challenges that could result in any measures enacted on that day being found by a court to be enacted illegally and thus not valid; a result she did not want," Goodman said.

Mills' office announced on Friday, after lawmakers adjourned, that her office was ready to receive and consider each bill that passed.

Goodman said the governor's office informed the Senate on Friday, Saturday and Monday that Mills is still ready to receive the roughly 30 bills enacted by the Senate. The bills arrived at the governor's office Monday afternoon. Mills has 10 days to sign the bills she wants to become law, otherwise they will die as a pocket veto without a written explanation.

Attorney General Aaron Frey has not publicly weighed in on the dispute. Frey's office previously told the Press Herald that he "can't provide legal advice to the public." On Friday, his office responded to a list of legal questions about the bills by saying "these are questions for the Legislature or the clerk's office."

Some Republicans clearly delighted in the Democrats' confusion on Friday evening.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, recorded a live video on Facebook outside the State House, showing Talbot Ross and her chief-of-staff walking back from the Blaine House shortly after 8 p.m. Libby speculated that Talbot Ross was at the governor's residence making a last-minute attempt to change Mills' mind.

"It's fun watching them flounder because it happens so rarely," Libby said as the sky slowly darkened behind her. "The governor has closed her door to the Democrats. They've actually had to come over to hunt her down at the Blaine House to try to convince her they're right and we should keep (the) session going and the bills are too important to let them die."

Goodman disputed that the governor "closed her door on Democrats." He said that the governor and her staff went to the Blaine House for dinner at 7 p.m. after a 45-minute meeting with legislative leaders, and Talbot Ross had come to inform them of her decision to adjourn sine die, or without a plan to reconvene.

House Democrats, who hold 79 of the 151 seats, never had full attendance on Friday and only lost members as the day turned into night.

Democratic absences during four veto override votes taken early Friday ranged from 19 to 22 members, compared to the seven absent Republicans. And by the end, Democrats were in the minority, according Republican leaders and other observers.

Neither House Majority Leader Mo Terry, D-Gorham, nor Assistant Majority Leader Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, responded to interview requests on Monday.

Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, said her caucus grew as the day went on. She said they were poised to object to any efforts to pass additional spending bills, citing a previous attorney general's opinion that veto day can only be used for vetoes.

Arata said it was clear that when lawmakers returned to the House chamber shortly after 9 p.m. that Republicans outnumbered Democrats.

"We were adding to our numbers because we had people with commitments earlier in the day, or even illness," Arata said. "We had Republicans showing up as Democrats were leaving. It was wonderful."

Advocates, such as the Maine Women's Lobby, followed the action closely and lamented that many of their priority bills — including funding for family planning services in rural areas and increased pay for sex assault advocacy and child care subsidies — would not become law, because of procedural confusion.

Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women's Lobby, was disappointed to see so many bills, including some with bipartisan support, fail to be enacted, especially when the state has had years of budget surpluses and a strong economy, though the administration says it worries about flattening revenues and increased costs in the coming years.

"I know you don't always — or even often — get everything you hope for," she said. "Still, it feels so deeply disappointing to lose the vast majority of our priorities and so many bills that were oriented toward women, children and families because of procedural disarray rather than disagreements about the underlying policies."

The end of the session produced a rare win for Republicans as lawmakers head home to campaign for control of the next Legislature.

"Probably the most successful day for Republicans was the last day," Faulkingham said. "We sustained six vetoes of bad bills. We saw 50-something spending bills not get funded, some of which we did support, but when you look at it as a whole, there was a lot of bad spending that was going to happen there."

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