Traps, ‘trickery’ and other things Maine lawmakers do in the middle of the night

Good morning from Augusta, where the dust is settling after some midnight procedural maneuvering by House Democrats that left Republicans seething, questions unanswered and business unfinished.

The House and Senate won’t be in session today, but it’s going to be a busy day at the Legislative Law Library as Democrats, Republicans and people charged with making state government function pore over statutes and constitutional interpretations to determine the next step in a partisan arm-wrestling marathon that’s paralyzed the State House.

There’s a lot of unraveling to do here and we don’t have all the answers. It’s possible no one does at this point, but we’ll try to explain it. Seconds after the clock struck midnight — and we mean seconds — Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, objected to the fact the session was crossing from Wednesday, which was the statutory adjournment deadline, into Thursday, but it was too late for the trap Democrats had in store.

Much of this week played out under a threat from House Republicans that regardless of which bills had been disposed of and which hadn’t, they weren’t going to vote to extend the length of the session, which in the past has been a mostly routine and frequent procedure that requires a two-thirds vote. The threat turned into reality Wednesday night when a majority of House Republicans blocked a five-day extension, despite most of the high-profile work we’ve been talking about for the past few months being left undone.

That includes funding Medicaid expansion, enacting a tax conformity package that’s necessary to avoid disaster for tax filers next year, approving a bond package that includes fundamentals everyone supports such as money to fix roads and bridges, increasing pay for direct-care workers and a number of other items.

House Republicans argued that Democrats had stalled action on their bills and that those delays should be interpreted as demonstrating that the proposals were not emergencies, which are supposed to be the focus of the second session. On the day of statutory adjournment, Republicans said that much of the unfinished business could be blocked outright or put off until next year when a new Legislature and governor are in place.

Many expected that as the clock struck midnight, the deadline had arrived and the session was over, but that’s when Democrats turned to an old hand. That’s Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who in case you didn’t know has been in the Legislature more or less since 1964 and was House speaker for decades.

Seconds after midnight, and moments after Winsor’s objection, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, made a startling announcement.

“We have now extended into Thursday by implication as the members continue to ask questions regarding the order in front of us,” Gideon said. “We have now extended the session.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and other Republicans were incredulous at what was happening and began arguing that the laws of the state are clear that without a vote to extend, the second year of every legislative session ends on the third Wednesday in April.

That’s when Martin stepped in to say, “I would just advise the representative from Newport, the legislation he is referring to, I wrote into the law.”

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, called it “really a step too far” and “trickery,” but Martin explained it this way: In 1974 when he was speaker, and when the Legislature switched from meeting every other year to convening every year, amendments to the law and constitution were enacted that among many other things, bars any Legislature from doing anything that could bind a future Legislature — unless the future Legislature sets rules that allow it. It’s a provision that comes up fairly regularly, but usually in relation to funding issues.

The Maine Constitution says the Legislature shall set its procedural rules every two years and according to Martin, the adjournment date is not in the current rules. Mason’s Rules for Legislative Bodies, which guides legislative proceedings, says that if a body goes past its adjournment date, the session is extended by implication.

After the parties caucused, the House reconvened and voted on two items — though Republicans made it clear they were doing so under protest. One of the items is meant to preserve the bills that are under consideration and which would otherwise die on final adjournment. If it holds, it means the Legislature can continue working on the bills during some future special session that can be called by either legislative leaders or the governor. The other item adjourned the House until the “call of the president and speaker.”

So, that’s where we stand. There are bills left undone and likely, more gubernatorial vetoes coming. Some lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, were already beginning to question the legality of what happened early this morning — though the Senate voted unanimously in favor of both of the late-night orders. There will be debates and maybe, the courts will become involved.

This is largely uncharted territory but one thing seems certain: We haven’t seen the last of the 128th Maine Legislature. — Christopher Cousins

The bills that stalled on the Legislature’s last day

Some of the items that were delayed or killed on Wednesday were hotly contested and some weren’t, which may force the Legislature in again soon. During the partisan disputes late Wednesday night, House Democrats summarily killed several proposals from Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans withheld necessary votes to correct drafting errors in Maine law.

That latter issue could prove to be consequential: After the session, Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, who co-chairs the voting committee, said if the Legislature doesn’t take action, the Maine Ethics Commission won’t be able to dispense taxpayer Clean Election campaign funding to state-level candidates because of an error in the two-year budget passed last year.

That bill was kept alive on Thursday and could be handled — alongside other aforementioned major issues — if the Legislature returns to Augusta later this year for more work or a special session.

But House Democrats summarily killed several LePage proposals that were never going far, including late-session entries to set Maine’s tobacco-buying age back to 18, abolish the Maine Turnpike Authority, restrict social services for certain immigrants, abolish mandated labor union fees, and require photo identification to vote.

All but two House Democrats also voted down a Republican proposal to outlaw female genital mutilation on the state level, which broke down into a partisan fight earlier this year. A version of it passed easily a day earlier in the Republican-led Senate, but the chambers ended up in disagreement on a final version. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

  • Personal quests motivated much of Maine’s independent gubernatorial candidates’ past campaign donations. A Bangor Daily News analysis of the four candidates’ campaign finance history follows the money to show how Terry Hayes went from being a donor to Republican Susan Collins’ gubernatorial bid to the leader of a PAC designed to elect Democrats to the Legislature. Alan Caron hopes to emulate Angus King’s successful independent campaign for governor with self-financing, while John Jenkins and Ken Capron have histories of not spending a lot of money on elections.
  • A federal judge will decide if a Maine student can compete in a national poetry contest. Allan Monga, 17, of Westbrook won Maine’s Poetry Out Loud event, qualifying for a trip the national competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. But because Monga, who moved to Maine from Zambia last year, continues to await word on his status as an asylum seeker, the NEA said he could not take part. U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock will decide whether he will be able to do so after hearing arguments Wednesday in Portland for a lawsuit filed on Monga’s behalf.
  • Maine spent Wednesday paying tribute to Barbara Bush. The former first lady who died Tuesday at age 92 was remembered for her support of literacy and children’s health. Residents of Kennebunkport, where she spent summers with her family, lauded her contributions to the community and her positive influence on local institutions. Meanwhile, an effort to create a license plate that raises money for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland sailed through the Legislature.
  • New fees for ferries that serve Maine islands have infuriated Islesboro residents. The new fee structure, which takes effect May 21, is designed to make the cost more equitable for residents of the different Maine islands it serves. But Islesboro residents are up in arms over increases that will more than double the cost for daily commuters.

Put your camel to bed

Covering the waning days of a legislative session often forces one to fill many late-night hours waiting for the cat-herding caucus process or for legislative time to catch up with real time. Here at the Daily Brief, those of us who aren’t doing the hard work of reporting and unravelling the late-night maneuvers — namely, me — occupy our time trying to come up with the perfect soundtrack for the occasion.

With an apparent midnight Wednesday deadline, it seemed a perfect time to dust off this soundtrack. Alas, the House debate dragged on well past 12 a.m., so here is a more appropriate soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.