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Maine lawmakers adjourn the legislative session, fail to overturn 6 vetoed bills

Gov. Janet Mills speaks with a visitor in her office at the State House, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Gov. Janet Mills speaks with a visitor in her office at the State House, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.

Maine lawmakers adjourned the 2024 legislative session on Friday night. And arguably the biggest news involved the measures that they didn’t pass.

Maine Public State House correspondent Kevin Miller talked with All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg about the rather tumultuous final days of the legislative session.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: So Kevin, let’s start briefly with vetoes. There were six of them on the table Friday. So what happened? 

Kevin Miller: Well, they failed to overturn all six of the bills, meaning that Governor Mills' vetoes were successful. The highest profile bill, which we've talked about here before, would have banned bump stocks and other modifications that allow a semi-automatic gun to fire more like a fully automatic weapon. The governor also vetoed a bill that would require farms to pay agricultural workers the minimum wage, and a proposal to set a new higher income tax bracket for Maine couples who are making seven figures.

And overall, Governor Mills has a pretty good track record when it comes to vetoes, doesn't she?

Yeah, she's batting 1000, to use a baseball analogy. The governor has vetoed nearly 50 bills over the past five years. And lawmakers have not overturned a single one of those. And that's despite the fact that Democrats have controlled both chambers of legislature during her time. And she's a Democratic governor. But again, that's largely because it takes a two thirds vote to overturn vetoes in the Maine legislature and Democrats don't have super majorities in both chambers.

Okay, so let's turn to spending. This was the other big question mark heading into Friday, and it certainly seemed like there was a lot of political tension over this.

Yeah, there was. So lawmakers wanted to spend about $11 million dollars that was left on the table. Mill said that she didn't think that was a good move, because she said it could push the state's budget to the "breaking point" at a time when the revenue flow to the state is really flattening because of everything that we're seeing in the economy. And really what ensued was this sort of political or even parliamentary chess match between Democrats in the legislature, the Democratic governor, and Republicans who also oppose many of the new spending initiatives. And Mills eventually won that fight. But now there's another dispute that's simmering out there.

So what happened with the spending bills?

So the legislature's budget writing committee voted to fund about 80 additional bills with this $11 million in leftover money, the Senate agreed, and they sent them over to the House for action, despite the fact that Mills was making these repeated warnings not to do this. So Friday afternoon, dragged into Friday night with no additional action. And then eventually, the house moved to adjourn without taking up the bills, meaning that they essentially withered and died on the vine. The explanation that we got from the House Democrats is that leadership had fully intended to take up the bills. But because the governor had made it really abundantly clear that she wasn't going to accept any new bills, they felt they had no choice but to adjourn, and that pretty much forced the Senate's hand. But that didn't go over well with Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson, who has really not gotten along very well with Governor Mills this session. And here's what President Jackson said late Friday night.

“To be honest, I don't know how some of these bills, I look people in the face and say that, you know, we did everything we could to make it happen, you know, make your lives better. And in the end, it didn't happen, for reasons I still don't really understand. That's gonna be hard for me, and that's going to be a challenge,” Jackson said.

And I'll just add that Jackson has termed out so this was potentially his last day at the rostrum, as Senate President, although I suspect, as do a lot of other people, that Troy Jackson will probably be back potentially with aspirations for higher office.

So Kevin, can you give us a sense of what didn't get funded because of this impasse between the governor and the legislature? 

Yes, so these really ran the gamut. They had some relatively small things like funding for a special state commission on how Maine is going to help observe the 250th anniversary of Americans Independence, there's another measure that would have imposed service fees on mega yachts that are showing up in Portland and Bar Harbor in places along the coast. And then you had more contentious issues like abortion and free health clinics. But just a few quick examples of higher profile issues that died for lack of funding. One measure would have provided an additional $250,000 to these free health clinics that serve low income Mainers another would have set aside $200,000 for a pilot project that would create transitional housing for people who are released from jail. And then Democrats also want to create a Civil Rights unit within the Attorney General's Office.

So Kevin, is that it for the 131st legislature? Or are there any other big issues or conflicts that are left hanging out there right now?

Yes, aside from the spending measures that we just talked about, there are actually a small number of bills that the Senate gave final approval to on Friday, and that they sent to Mills, and then she actually declined to accept them or sent them back initially. And this is, again, this procedural chess match that we saw happening on Friday. Those bills deal with child welfare, health insurance. There's a medical equipment bill and a number of other issues that really didn't get a lot of attention. The bills should be headed to Governor Mills once again, but because the legislature is adjourned she only has two options. She can either sign them into law, or she can not sign them, killing them. So essentially, these dozen plus bills are now in limbo, and Governor Mills still has a few more decisions to make about how to handle them.