AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that he has vetoed a bill to ban the use of cellphones and other hand-held devices while driving and another to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Lawmakers will take veto override votes when they return to Augusta for what is expected to be a one-day session Aug. 2.

Speaking during his weekly call-in appearance on the Bangor-based WVOM talk radio show, LePage said he opposes laws that amount to “social engineering.”

“I don’t believe that social engineering a society is going to create a good society,” LePage told the show’s hosts, George Hale and Christian Greeley.

Greeley, the Holden police chief and a former state lawmaker, said enforcing Maine’s current laws against distracted driving and texting while driving is difficult.

“(It’s) a very hard law to enforce because the automatic defense from the driver is ‘I was just about to make a phone call’ (or) ‘I was accepting a phone call,’ ” Greeley said, “and that takes away the ability, oftentimes, for law enforcement to prosecute texting-and-driving cases.”

But LePage pushed back, saying police should simply confiscate a phone and look at it to determine whether a driver was making or accepting a call or sending a text message. Greeley responded that police can’t simply confiscate evidence without a search warrant.

LePage said he vetoed the bill to increase the legal age to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products, including vaping equipment, because 18-year-olds are deemed mature enough to join the military.

“I’m not going to strap a gun to their shoulder and go fight a war if they can’t go buy cigarettes,” LePage said. “I’ll tell you, this is just sinful, it is absolutely sinful, and I believe that at 18 they are mature enough to make a decision and I’m tired of living in a society where we social engineer our lives.”

PROSPECTS FOR OVERRIDING THE VETOES

Both bills passed with broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, with the House voting 113-34 to raise the age for purchasing tobacco to 21 and the Senate backing the measure 31-4, both more than the two-thirds margins needed to overturn a veto.

The bill banning the use of hand-held electronic devices passed by narrower margins, with a House vote of 85-60 and a Senate vote of 21-14. Neither exceeded the two-thirds margin.

Supporters of increasing the age for purchasing cigarettes point to health studies that show smoking-related illnesses are responsible for about 30 percent of Maine deaths. Advocates also cited studies suggesting that people who start smoking at a young age are more likely to become life-long smokers.

“We know that if kids don’t pick up a cigarette during these vulnerable teenage years, most of them will never start smoking later,” Hilary Schneider, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society in Maine, said in a prepared statement.

Maine is only the fifth state to attempt to raise the legal age for tobacco sales to 21.

Hawaii and California have laws on the books, the Oregon Legislature recently passed a similar law and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law Friday, according to Lance Boucher, director of public policy for the American Lung Association in Maine and New Hampshire.

Supporters of banning the use of hand-held devices while driving say a law will make Maine’s roads safer and that distracted driving is a common but underreported factor in many vehicle collisions.

Fines issued to drivers who violate the ban are projected to raise about $1 million annually starting in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the first full year it would be in effect. Roughly $65,000 of that would be appropriated to pay a full-time administrative clerk and related costs.

Violations would carry fines of $75 for a first offense and $150 for a repeat offense within three years. The bill also includes a license suspension provision for repeat offenders. Only hands-free devices mounted to the dashboard and cellphones in hands-free mode would be allowed. Drivers would be permitted to wear headsets and to use a hand-held device to contact emergency services.

The District of Columbia and 14 states – including Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island – have made it illegal to use a hand-held device while driving.

Official veto messages for the bills, which explain the governor’s reasoning to the Legislature, were not available from LePage’s office Tuesday morning and will likely be sent to the Legislature when it reconvenes.

LEPAGE URGES MARIJUANA CRACKDOWN

LePage also said he wished the Legislature had repealed the referendum-passed law legalizing recreational marijuana use in Maine.

“I would have just repealed it and said, ‘Listen, federal law says it’s illegal, let’s move to the federal government and let them deal with this,’ ” LePage said. “In fact, I’m urging (U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions to put the hammer down on states that have recreational marijuana.”

A special select committee of the Legislature is working on laws to regulate recreational marijuana production and sales, and those bills could also be subject to LePage vetoes.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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