AUGUSTA, Maine – The $6.7 billion state budget may be in place, but Maine lawmakers don't get to clear off their desks just yet.
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While they plowed through nearly all of the remaining bills on their to-do list last week, lawmakers will be hauled back to Augusta later this month thanks to Gov. Paul LePage's prolific use of his veto pen, which has helped extend the legislative session far beyond its mid-June end date.
Despite his threat to veto every bill that gets to his desk, the Republican has let a handful become law without his signature and even signed a few. Even so, he has vetoed nearly 200 bills so far this session and with roughly 80 measures awaiting his consideration, dozens more are expected. They will have to be taken up by lawmakers when they return July 16 for "veto day."
Many of the bills likely will become law despite the governor's objections as Republicans have frequently joined Democrats to overturn his vetoes. Lawmakers have overridden nearly 120 vetoes so far.
Among the high-profile vetoes that lawmakers will try to override is a measure introduced by Republican Sen. Roger Katz that's designed to force LePage to release more than $11 million in bonds for land conservation projects, which he has used as leverage to try to get lawmakers to pass one of his priorities.
When it first passed last month, Katz's bill earned the two-thirds support in each chamber that it would need for an override. But backers say they're worried that lawmakers who initially supported the bill will succumb to political pressure and flip their votes to sustain the governor's veto.
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Opponents "will have two weeks to target all of their energies on people that voted for it the first time, and that certainly worries me," said David Trahan, a former Republican senator who is now executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and has been among those leading the fight against LePage on the Lands for Maine's Future bonds. "The governor could resolve all of this if he would just release the bond projects and we wouldn't have to have this exercise," he said.
LePage has withheld the bonds in an attempt to get lawmakers to pass his plan to pump funds from increased timber harvesting into a program to help reduce residents' heating bills.
Katz's bill seeks to prevent bonds from being used as political leverage and would require the governor to issue voter-approved bonds, except for in extraordinary circumstances, such as when doing so might have a negative impact the state's credit rating. It also would eliminate the requirement that the governor must sign off on all bonds.
LePage blasted the measure in a four-page veto letter, saying it "runs afoul of the Maine constitution" and would create uncertainty in the state's "finely crafted bonding process."
"This is a major departure from our current bonding process that must be carefully considered, not simply passed in a fit of pique at the Executive," LePage said.
Dozens of other key bills that were recently passed by the Legislature remain in limbo as the governor weighs his options.
Among them are ones that would eliminate the requirement for concealed handgun permits; return control of the state's jails to the individual counties; and expand access to the drug overdose antidote naloxone, better known by its brand name Narcan. A $15 million bond proposal that would help fund the construction of more affordable senior housing across Maine is also on the governor's desk and may be reconsidered by lawmakers this month if he decides to veto it. LePage signed an $85 million bond bill for road and bridge improvements last week.
In addition to the vetoes, lawmakers will have to take final action on a handful of bills that remain on their agenda when they return on the 16th. Most of those proposals are expected to either die or be carried over until next session.
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