The Slatest

Maine Governor Vows to Cut Off Asylum-Seekers’ Aid, Is Foiled By Failure to Read State’s Constitution

Paul LePage
Maine Governor Paul LePage, seen here at a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing in May, lost one of his signature battles this week due to an unforced constitutional error.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The state of Maine will continue providing financial assistance to asylum-seekers after Republican governor Paul LePage, who made cutting the aid a central issue of his re-election, misread his state’s constitution and missed a deadline to veto the benefits.

As the Maine Beacon reports, LePage declared last year that Maine’s asylum-seekers, many of whom entered the country legally after fleeing bloody conflicts in African countries and are barred by federal law from obtaining work permits for at least six months, fit a definition of “undocumented immigrants” that would disqualify them for General Assistance welfare benefits. LePage threatened to stop reimbursing cities paying benefits; some state Republicans took up the charge in the legislature, claiming that “Maine people” were more in need of the resources.

The governor appeared to have gotten his way in late June when lawmakers passed LD 369, a bill allowing the benefits to continue, with less than a veto-proof majority, but LePage lost his chance on Tuesday to make the veto and cut off the benefits due to a fundamental misunderstanding of his state’s constitution. From the Beacon:

LePage’s staff is claiming that he engaged in what’s known as a “pocket veto” of LD 369 and other legislation–a maneuver that can be used to kill bills outright after the legislature has adjourned. According to legislative leaders and constitutional experts, however, that claim is ridiculous as the legislature hasn’t adjourned and is set to return to session on July 16th to consider LePage’s vetoes.

“The Maine Constitution is clear on this. The governor had 10 days to veto the bills, he did not veto them, and now the bills will become law,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “We do not have a government of one, and the governor cannot make up the rules as he goes along.”

Setting aside the unforced error of constitutional interpretation, it wasn’t immediately clear why LePage would have preferred a quiet pocket veto over a public rejection of the bill. The pledge to eliminate asylum-seeker benefits had a starring role in LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign, the Beacon notes, complete with ads funded by the Republican Governors’ Association and robo-calls attacking Republican legislators who seemed to disagree with LePage’s hard-line stance. LePage, an outspoken Tea Party favorite, is not unfamiliar with controversy, making headlines during his first term for telling President Obama to “go to hell” and accusing a Democratic lawmaker of “giv[ing] it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

Democrat Drew Gattine, the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee in Maine’s House of Representatives, praised the (accidental) enactment of the asylum-seeker benefits law on his Facebook page Tuesday night as “a giant step forward for Maine” that would help keep skilled workers in the state. Said Gattine: “New Mainers will play an important role in Maine’s future and we need to invest in their success.”