AUGUSTA — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said Friday that 19 bills held by Gov. Paul LePage have become law, dismissing the LePage administration’s contention that the Legislature had adjourned.

In a four-page letter released late Friday afternoon, Mills said LePage missed the 10-day window allowed under the Maine Constitution to either sign or veto the bills. There are another 51 bills sitting on LePage’s desk, and under Mills’ opinion, those also would become law unless LePage vetoes them by midnight Saturday.

The bills run the gamut from high-profile measures on welfare reform and control of the jails to lesser-known proposals on broadband Internet and electronic cigarettes.

Although not legally binding, Mills’ opinion supports the contention of Democratic legislative leaders and some Republicans that the LePage administration misinterpreted Maine’s constitution by claiming the governor could hold bills longer.

“Bills that have not been returned to the Legislature with the objections of the governor within 10 days of being presented to the governor, excluding Sundays, have now become finally enacted in accordance with (Maine’s Constitution),” wrote Mills, a Democrat who has clashed often with LePage, a Republican. “Those that are emergency bills are in full force and effect.”

Two senators – one Democrat and one Republican – had requested Mills’ opinion after LePage said the Legislature had adjourned, thereby allowing him to delay handing down vetoes until lawmakers had come back into session and met for at least four more days.

A spokesman for LePage did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening.

In another setback for LePage on Friday, the administration failed in its attempt to halt the process of writing dozens of recently passed bills into the law books while the governor seeks legal guidance on the issue.

Cynthia Montgomery, LePage’s chief legal counsel, accused the nonpartisan Revisor of Statutes of “overly partisan conduct” in a letter she wrote to Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council.

“Regardless of whether we agree on which legal theory is more persuasive, surely we can agree that there is a need for a reasoned and legal resolution,” Montgomery wrote. “Accordingly, I am requesting that the Revisor’s Office pause in its zeal to effectuate these laws, allowing time for the dispute to be addressed.”

In a written response to Montgomery issued before Mills’ opinion, Pennoyer said that without legal guidance from the courts or the attorney general, the Revisor’s Office would continue “performing its administrative responsibilities in an absolutely nonpartisan manner.”

“The Revisor’s Office did not ignore the governor’s position; in fact, despite their repeated attempts to get clarification regarding the original bill folders for the bills that had become law pursuant to the Constitution, no one in the governor’s Office conveyed to them the governor’s position,” Pennoyer wrote.

CONTENTIOUS BILLS AT ISSUE

Mills’ opinion and Pennoyer’s response to Montgomery’s letter were the latest developments in an ongoing constitutional debate between the Republican governor and lawmakers.

The dispute centers on whether the Legislature “adjourned” for the year last week or simply “recessed” until July 16. No mere matter of semantics, the outcome of the disagreement could dictate whether some contentious bills become law.

One bill supported by the majority of lawmakers and opposed by LePage would allow immigrants seeking asylum in the United States to receive General Assistance for up to two years. That bill, L.D. 369, appeared poised to die on the House floor had LePage vetoed it because it did not pass the chamber with a veto-proof, two-thirds majority.

Another bill would require police to obtain search warrants before using unmanned aerial drones in criminal investigations. A third bill would allow friends of heroin addicts to carry an anti-overdose drug. Then there’s a major bill that would return the control of jails to the counties – a contentious issue that lawmakers worked on for weeks.

LePage’s decision not to veto bills quickly reflects his stated intention of keeping the Legislature busy and drawing out the legislative session in response to lawmakers’ refusal to adopt key portions of his budget or allow a constitutional amendment vote on eliminating the income tax.

“For five months they wasted our time. This time I am going to waste a little bit of their time,” LePage said on June 17.

The adjournment issue may ultimately land before the state’s highest court, capping a bizarre legislative session in which LePage has vetoed more than 180 bills – not including the 70 still on his desk – and unusually high tensions between the legislative and executive branches.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said no requests had been filed with the Law Court on the matter as of Friday.

DEBATE RAGES ON

The debate over the 70 held bills raged again Friday.

Under Maine’s Constitution, the governor has 10 days – excluding Sundays – to either sign or veto a bill passed by the Legislature. If the governor fails to act by the end of that 10-day period, the bill becomes law without the governor’s signature.

But the Constitution also says that if the Legislature adjourns – the definition of which is now in question – the governor can return the bill to the Legislature “within 3 days after the next meeting of the same Legislature which enacted the bill or resolution.”

LePage is seizing on that section of the constitution and lawmakers’ use of the word “adjourn” in their June 30 recess agreement – and their decision to stay away for more than 10 days – to justify his holding onto the bills until the Legislature convenes again, which is scheduled to occur Thursday.

“In their zeal to play ‘gotcha’ with the governor, the Democrats and their many friends in the media have failed to do their research, have misread the law or simply don’t understand that this is the way legal issues are raised and, ultimately, addressed: someone begins by challenging the status quo,” Montgomery wrote in a six-page legal analysis released Friday.

Democratic legislative leaders insist that they did not bring the session to a formal end on June 30 by “adjourning sine die” – Latin for adjourning “without day” – but instead “recessed” until July 16 in order to take up more vetoes expected to come from the governor.

Mills sided with the latter in her opinion, which was sought by Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick and Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton. Mills wrote that the Legislature clearly intended to return because it did not “adjourn sine die,” adding her interpretation is consistent with those of other states and a comparable provision in the U.S. Constitution.

“Finally, it is consistent with the historical practice of every legislature and every governor, including the present governor, in recent memory, and it is consistent with the determination of the effective dates of enacted legislation under the Maine Constitution,” Mills wrote.

LAWS’ VALIDITY DISPUTED

Meanwhile, the Revisor of Statutes already has written into the law books – a process known as “chaptering” because they are assigned reference chapter numbers – 19 bills that LePage did not veto or sign and then deliver to the Legislature within 10 days. Although “chaptered” into published law, most of those bills do not take effect until 90 days after the Legislature recesses.

In her letter to Pennoyer, Montgomery “disputes the validity of these laws” and accused lawmakers of wishing to “rush through the procedural hurdles associated with implementation of these laws.”

“Having the Revisor’s Office completely ignore the governor’s position is not only overly partisan conduct on the part of the Revisor’s Office, it is also unnecessary as the governor intends to seek a legal solution to this matter,” Montgomery wrote. “There is nothing in (Maine law) that demands such immediate action on the part of the Revisor.”

Democratic leaders held firm in their stance that the 19 bills have become law, as will the 51 others if LePage does not act before Sunday.

“The governor has already allowed a number of bills to become law without his signature, whether it was inadvertently or through a serious misunderstanding of the Maine Constitution,” House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said in a statement Friday. “We’re looking forward to seeing even more of the good policy passed by the Legislature become law this weekend.”

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, a Newport Republican who serves as minority leader in the House, said they are facing “an unanswered legal question” that is best settled by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Either the Legislature or the governor can request a legal opinion from the court through what’s known as a “solemn occasion” request.

Fredette also has asked for an emergency meeting of the Legislative Council – the committee comprised of the Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers – to address the governor’s concerns that the held bills are being written into law.

“These bills remain in limbo until we get this issue addressed,” Fredette said. “I think there are legal analyses that need to be conducted. I think there are some gray areas. … If you look at the Constitution, it simply uses the word ‘adjournment’ so we really need to look to the Law Court to answer this question.”

The two House Democrats on the Legislative Council – Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport – made clear Friday that they believe there “is no reason to convene the Legislative Council to address Gov. Paul LePage’s veto failure.”