AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Dozens of bills opposed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage have become law because he misinterpreted the Maine Constitution and didn't veto the measures in time, the state's highest court said Thursday.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected LePage's argument that the Legislature's temporary adjournment in June prevented him from returning 65 vetoes to the House and Senate, siding with top lawmakers in a dispute that overshadowed the end of a contentious legislative session.
LePage said he's thankful that the justices resolved the issue and looks forward to moving on and "continuing to work for the Maine people."
"This was not about winning or losing," he said in a statement. "It was about doing things right."
But the court's ruling is a huge setback for LePage, whose increasingly bold actions since winning re-election last fall have alienated some members of his own party.
Lawmakers hailed the ruling and called on LePage to enforce the new laws, which include one that the governor vehemently opposed that will allow immigrants seeking asylum in Maine to receive municipal welfare benefits.
There likely wasn't enough support in the Legislature to overturn LePage's veto and the measure probably would have died if the governor had rejected it on time.
"The court has rightly rejected Gov. Paul LePage's legal gymnastics," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. "The decision affirms these bills are law. The governor must enforce them," he said in a statement.
Other measures that are now law include a bill expanding access to an anti-overdose antidote and another providing insurance coverage for reproductive services to more women.
Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Susan Collins' last campaign, said the ruling reaffirmed "what virtually observer knew from the beginning."
"We hope that this ruling will result in a different pattern of conduct from this administration, one that more closely resembles the tradition of Maine Republican statesmanship that so many of our elected officials have exemplified," said Dutson, who started a group called "Get Right Maine" designed to "get the Maine Republican Party back on track" that has been highly critical of LePage.
The governor went to the court last month after lawmakers refused to take up the 65 veto messages that his staff members hand-delivered to lawmakers on their final day of session for the year.
He argued that the 10-day limit he's typically given to sign or veto bills didn't apply because lawmakers adjourned at the end of June.
But lawmakers and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said that's the case only when lawmakers adjourn for the year. Lawmakers had been planning all along to return in July to wrap up their business and consider any outstanding vetoes from LePage, who has rejected more bills than any other governor in Maine history.
Eves and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau teamed up in court to oppose LePage, but House Republicans backed the governor and urged the justices to let lawmakers consider his vetoes.
Thibodeau said that he's disappointed that some of the bills are now law, but hopes lawmakers can "use this as an opportunity to change the tone in Augusta."
The justices said they don't take lightly the fact that their conclusions will "render ineffective" the governor's objections to the 65 bills.
"We understand the hope expressed by three Republican members of the House that a method of compromise could be found by which the Chief Executive and the Legislature would have an opportunity to revisit decisions and timeframes that have passed," the court said. "The Maine Constitution, and nearly four decades of practice and precedent, do not, however, provide for such a process."
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