The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

When you play silly games, you win silly prizes.  

I think that will be the lesson learned by the Legislature.

Back in March, the Democratic majorities flexed their muscles and pushed through a budget over the objection of Republicans. Since they did not have GOP support to make it an “emergency” with a two-thirds vote, they had to start the clock running for the bill to become law before the start of Maine’s fiscal year on July 1.

Under the Maine Constitution, that requires a 90-day waiting period, starting from the date of adjournment of the session which passed the law. So, after passing the budget, the Legislature adjourned on March 31 and returned days later.

This “majority budget” was legislative hijinx. And the Democrats were fully within their rights to do it.  

But actions have consequences.

On Wednesday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard an intra-governmental argument. On one side was Gov. Janet Mills, Attorney General Aaron Frey, and Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. On the other was the Maine Legislature. Two political groups jumped into the fray as well, one on each side.

The fight surrounds a few referendum petitions that had been submitted to the secretary of state, who had sent them off to the Legislature’s staff offices.

The Maine Constitution gives the Legislature the right to pass the petitions with an up-or-down vote. If they fail to do so, a petition will go to the voters, either by itself or with a “competing measure,” which is an alternative proposal on the same subject matter. This places 3 options on the November ballot.

That is where it gets complex. The Constitution says the initiative “shall be submitted to the electors” “unless enacted without change by the Legislature at the session at which it is presented.”  

And the Legislature suddenly adjourned their first regular session in March to pursue their “majority budget” strategy. They didn’t enact any of the initiatives.  

Mills, Frey, and Bellows have the better of this argument.  

When the secretary of state sent the petitions to legislative staff, they were “presented” to the Legislature. At that moment, the House and Senate were convened in their first regular session.  

More than 2,000 bills were submitted by the 186 legislators. Staff was buried and they have continually been drafting and releasing new bills. Because Democrats decided to enact their majority budget, they ended the “regular” session and Gov. Mills called them back into a “special” session.

Which means they didn’t enact the initiatives and Mills issued a proclamation putting the questions out for a vote.

Legislators don’t like the consequences of their actions. They argued to the Supreme Judicial Court that the bill was never really “presented” because their staff didn’t get it printed in time.

The danger of that argument is clear.  

Maine has a history of very strong legislative leaders. The so-called Earl of Eagle Lake, former long-term Maine House Speaker John Martin, is Exhibit A. And it is not wild to think that someone in the future could play political games with legislative staff to try and hobble a proposed initiative.

In short, it seems likely the court will tell the Legislature they missed their shot and that Gov. Mills, Attorney General Frey, and Secretary Bellows are correct.

This should refocus the Legislature on finding better ways to govern. That includes returning to the ordinary course of business where the minority party is included on the biggest decision of the year – the budget.

Otherwise, silly games will have unintended consequences that continue to strike again and again, leaving the Legislature – and thus the people of Maine – with silly prizes to be sorted out in the courts.

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.