By Andrea Cianchette Maker, Government Relations Attorney, Pierce Atwood LLP, and Public Policy Counsel to MEREDA
Governor Elected with a Strong Vote
Last November Governor LePage was re-elected by a larger margin than expected, securing his second term which started January 7, 2015. The governor’s first order of business was budget-related. Heading into the next biennial budget cycle, Maine faced a “structural gap” projected to be hundreds of millions of dollars.
Budget Submitted in January, Significant Tax Reform Proposed
On January 9th, 2015, Governor LePage submitted his biennial budget proposal to the Legislature. This document proposed major tax policy changes, including eliminating the estate tax, reducing the personal and corporate income tax rates, eliminating municipal revenue sharing, transitioning certain business equipment from the property tax reimbursement program to the property tax exemption program, and other property tax-related proposals (including limited taxation of nonprofits).
Democrats Propose Own Tax Reform; Governor Proposes Constitutional Amendment
Democrats then unveiled their tax plan dubbed a “Better Deal for Maine” which focused on cuts to the income tax for the middle class, property tax relief, and investment in education. Meanwhile, Governor LePage called for a constitutional amendment to abolish the state’s income tax. Reduction of the income tax was the center point of this proposed biennial budget, with the governor indicating that if the Legislature failed to eliminate the income tax, the issue would go before Maine voters.
Final Budget Put Together by Legislative Leadership
During the final weeks of June, Legislative Leadership became more involved in the effort to craft a unified budget. Although the governor proposed a continuing resolution to operate state government past the June 30th deadline, the Democrats responded that such a procedure is illegal in Maine. Legislative leaders produced a budget that received unanimous approval from the budget committee and, on June 24th, the Maine House and Senate approved a $6.7 billion budget by a two-thirds or greater margin. Despite vastly different priorities, both parties were able to compromise. Republicans had achieved some tax reform and Democrats had achieved additional funding for K-12 education.
64 Line-Item Vetoes, Full Budget Veto, Legislature Overrides All
The governor returned the budget with 64 line-item vetoes adding up to about $60 million. Both the House and Senate voted to override each of the vetoes. A few days later, the Governor vetoed the entire budget and the House and Senate again took action to override that veto, passing into law the $6.7 billion budget, and avoiding a government shutdown by 13 hours.
170 Bills Vetoed, 120 Vetoes Overridden
Governor LePage, in response to having his income tax proposal rejected, threatened to veto all bills sponsored by Democrats. By the end of the 127th First Regular Session, he had vetoed more than 170 bills; more than 120 of those vetoes were overridden.
65 Controversial Vetoes Submitted
A sequence of events led to the creation of 65 controversial vetoes submitted by Governor LePage. On June 18, the day after the statutory adjournment date, the Legislature voted to extend its session. No one made any objections to that vote. On June 30, the Legislature adjourned until the “call of legislative leadership”, contemplating a return date of July 16 to deal with any outstanding vetoes that might be submitted on bills enacted in the last days of the Legislature. The constitution provides the Governor a 10 day period following legislative enactment to sign or veto a bill, or to allow a bill to become law without his signature. The Legislature received no vetoes in that 10 day window. The Revisor of Statutes determined these bills had become law without the Governor’s signature and chaptered them as laws. When the Legislature convened on July 16 to wrap up their final pieces of work, the Governor submitted vetoes of 65 bills. The Legislature refused to address the vetoes, claiming that the Governor missed the 10 day deadline.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Ruled that Vetoes were not Valid
Following a request by Governor LePage, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments on July 31 on whether or not the 65 vetoes submitted by the Governor on July 16 were valid. The Governor opined that either the Legislature adjourned on June 18 because they did not correctly extend the Legislative session past that statutory adjournment date, or in the alternative, when the Legislature adjourned on June 30 until the “call of legislative leadership” without announcing a future date for reconvening, it was impossible for him to return the vetoes to the Legislature because they were temporarily adjourned. On August 6, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous decision finding that the Legislature did correctly extend the legislative session past the statutory adjournment date and that the 65 vetoes in question were not properly before the Legislature. Acknowledging that the constitutional language is ambiguous, the Court reviewed the context of constitutional language, past tradition and practices of Maine’s Legislature and Governors, and judicial precedents of other jurisdictions for its reasoning. The Court clarified that a bill is not prevented from being returned by a governor to the originating bodies when the Legislature is temporarily adjourned, whereas an adjournment “sine die” or “without day” which is the vote that terminates a session, does prevent a bill’s return until the next Legislative session is convened. These 65 controversial bills have become law, and unless otherwise specified in the bill, will become effective October 15, 2015.