AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday said he’s holding on to 19 bills, not as a “pocket veto” as his office earlier implied, but to keep them away from the Legislature until it returns, at which time he intends to formally veto the bills and send them back to lawmakers.

Per the Maine Constitution, during a legislative session, a governor has 10 days — excluding Sundays — either to veto or sign a bill that has been passed by both chambers of the Legislature. If neither occurs, the bill automatically becomes law without the governor’s signature.

But, if the Legislature “adjourns” during this 10-day window, the rules change. Then, a governor can hold such bills until lawmakers return into session for a minimum of three days, at which point he can send them to the House and Senate as vetoed.

If lawmakers do not return, the bills neither signed nor vetoed simply die — that’s what is known as the “pocket veto.”

The core issue now is whether the Legislature has legally “adjourned,” a status ordinarily declared with a legal term called “sine die” — Latin for “without day” — which is invoked by the Legislature when it concludes the business of a session and does not plan to return.

That has not happened. But LePage’s office points to an order passed in the House and Senate on June 30, saying the Legislature would adjourn until the call of the House speaker and Senate president. Because they passed this order, LePage’s office says he can hold the bills.

“The Legislature can choose to meet for at least three days now, or they can wait until they come back January,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett in a news release Wednesday morning. “Either way, they will have ample time to thoughtfully consider these vetoes, rather than rushing through them in another veto-override spree without understanding what they are voting on.”

Legislative leaders, however, declare they are still in session, and the 19 bills are now law because the Legislature has not officially adjourned “sine die.”

When lawmakers left the State House on June 30, they made clear their intention to return to work on July 16 to take up LePage’s vetoes. After that, they planned to adjourn “sine die.” Until then, legislative leaders consider the House and Senate to be “at ease,” but not adjourned.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, was blunt in his assessment of the governor’s interpretation of the constitution.

“The Constitution and historical precedent make clear that these bills are law, ” Eves said in prepared statement. “The governor is wrong.”

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said that if LePage tries to return vetoes to the House on July 16 that have already been on his desk for more than 10 days, the House will not take them up.

“If he delivers vetoes to the clerk of the House, they won’t be in order,” McCabe said Wednesday. “Those bills are law. … The governor has an opportunity to be part of the process. I may not like that he vetoes bills, but that’s his right. But to play these games is ridiculous.”

Among the bills that LePage has held for more than 10 days is LD 369, which would guarantee asylum seekers in Maine eligibility for General Assistance — a welfare program that provides money for existential expenses such as shelter, food and heat.

LePage has sought to make such legally present immigrants ineligible under his interpretation of federal law, and lawmakers expected him to veto the bill. There was a very real chance that House Republicans could have sustained his veto.

Depending on the outcome of the current debate over “adjournment,” Democrats could score a big win. The bill is a big priority for Democrats and, if their argument wins the day, LD 369 would become law without House Republicans getting a chance to kill it.

Civil liberties activists are joining the cause against LePage’s action. Zachary Heiden, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said that LePage’s read on the Constitution is wrong.

“The first regular session is still in session, and they’re trying to look at a couple words in the Constitution out of context, but the law in Maine is that when they’re in session, he has 10 days,” Heiden said. “He has shown — very ably — the ability to veto things within 10 days when he doesn’t want them to become law.”

Heiden pointed out that the Legislature “adjourns” temporarily nearly every week during a session, to allow lawmakers to go home before returning to work after the weekend. Historically, “adjournment” as referenced in the Constitution has always been interpreted to mean sine die adjournment at the end of a session.

If it were not, Heiden said, LePage would have nearly unlimited time to veto bills during a session, because the 10-day clock would restart every time the Legislature recessed for a day or a weekend. That’s clearly not what’s intended by the Constitution, he said.

“That’s not what adjourns means in this context,” he said. “This is a frivolous legal argument.”

The Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction, which is generally accepted as a core text on statutory construction and interpretation by the American Bar Association, supports the argument by legislative Democrats that LePage’s clock has run out.

“The term adjournment as used in the constitutional provisions is generally held to relate to final adjournment rather than temporary adjournment or recess,” Sutherland states. “Thus, a return of a bill after a temporary recess does not prevent the bill from becoming law.”

The governor’s office, however, is maintaining this action is well within the law.

“The governor and chief legal counsel have carefully reviewed the chief executive’s authority within the state of Maine Constitution,” said Bennett in her statement Wednesday. “Rest assured, the governor will take appropriate action and the bills will be delivered to the 127th Legislature in accordance with the state of Maine Constitution.”

If lawmakers hold their ground that the bills in question are already law, and LePage holds his ground saying they are not, a court may have to intervene.

Watch for updates.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...