But despite LePage’s victory last November, the last few months have marked something of an unraveling for the famously filter-free conservative—even before the veto mess. A bipartisan legislative committee is investigating whether he forced a charter school not to hire the Democratic speaker of the house, liberals are calling for LePage’s impeachment, and his standing within his own party has deteriorated to the point where the legislature overrode his veto of the state budget with help from the Republican senate president (averting a government shutdown). In retaliation, a LePage-aligned political organization run by his daughter began recording robocalls in Republican districts, accusing legislators of siding with Democrats. In recent days, a veteran GOP operative has launched a group for Republicans who oppose LePage’s approach.
What’s clear, then, is that outside of a few loyal allies in the House, LePage’s relationship with the legislature has reached a new low. And yet: How do you screw up a veto?
It’s not as if this was the first time the governor was breaking the pen out of its box. In fact, LePage has issued more vetoes than any governor in the 195-year history of Maine, and the legislature has, in turn, overridden a record number of those vetoes. For most of June, the governor had been carrying out his threat to reject any bill sponsored by a Democrat (and that expanded to some Republicans as well), so as the legislature’s session drew to a close, lawmakers had grown accustomed to accepting the hand delivery of veto messages by the bucketload from a member of the governor’s staff, often near the end of the 10-day window he has to issue them.
So when, earlier this month, the deadline passed for LePage to veto the first batch of 71 bills that the legislature had approved in the final days of the session ending June 30, lawmakers were confused. “We thought, ‘Wow, what a crazy mistake,’” Jeff McCabe, the Democratic House majority leader, told me in an interview. LePage had spent the July 4th weekend campaigning with Chris Christie, so Democrats thought he might simply have lost track of time. But then the veto deadline passed for the rest of the bills, and it became clear, McCabe said, that LePage “was really doubling down and he was pretending that his interpretation of the [state] constitution was way different than our interpretation.”
The rules for issuing a veto are not, it turns out, quite as simple as the famous Schoolhouse Rock video makes it seem—at least in Maine. The state constitution gives the governor longer than 10 days to veto bills when the legislature’s adjournment prevents a bill’s return. After initially giving a different explanation, LePage’s office has argued that because the legislature left without setting a firm date to reconvene, the governor could exercise a provision in the constitution allowing him to return vetoed bills when the legislature next meets for three-consecutive days. So on July 16, he delivered veto letters for 65 of the 71 bills. But both Democratic and Republican leaders refused to accept them, saying that both chambers had clearly set a return date for the express purpose of voting to override or sustain the governor’s vetoes. LePage had missed the deadline, they said, and the bills had become law. “We made it very clear,” McCabe said, noting that even Republicans had mentioned the mid-July session before they left in June. (The Bangor Daily News has an even more detailed explanation of the dispute here.)