Use of veto pen leaves Mills at odds with members of her own party

But political experts and opponents say the moves show an independent streak, and a wariness of an electoral showdown with Paul LePage.

by | July 11, 2021

Maine Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed 16 bills during this year's legislative session. All of the bills that Mills vetoed were passed with near-unanimous support from her own party. Photo by Yoon Byun.

State Rep. Charlotte Warren watched three votes to overturn vetoed bills fail, and then when her bill came up for a vote, she spoke bluntly about its chances to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to overturn a gubernatorial veto.

“You don’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing,” Warren (D-Hallowell) said on June 30, before encouraging her colleagues to overturn Gov. Janet Mills’ veto of a bill that would close the Long Creek Youth Development Center, a juvenile prison.

In her last effort to convince lawmakers to override, Warren said society is “judged on how it treats its children” and that children in Long Creek “have been failed by the system.” Despite her efforts, the measure failed to get the 100 votes needed to close the center.

Charlotte Warren

Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell)

Whether to close Long Creek is just one example of Mills and her own Democratic party disagreeing on legislation. 

As of July 7, Mills had vetoed 16 bills this session, and there could be more as the Legislature wraps up this month. None have been overridden.

All of the bills Mills vetoed were passed with near-unanimous support from her own party, although only a few had bipartisan support. 

The question for Mills is: Why?

Is the governor simply again showing what some experts say is her well-known independent streak? Or is she vetoing what may be viewed as liberal legislation for political reasons, especially now that former Gov. Paul LePage, a fiery Republican, has announced he intends to run for election in 2022?

While Warren did not sound surprised about the House’s inability to overturn the vetoes, or even Mills’ decision to veto, other Democrats seemed perplexed that the governor rejected their bills.  

Rep. Christopher Kessler (D-South Portland), who sponsored a bill to change regulations for cable companies and streaming services, tried working with Mills’ office to strike a deal but got nowhere. 

“I’m frankly scratching my head on this one,” Kessler said on the House floor. “The veto letter states the administration worked in good faith. When work has been done on a bill consulting both sides throughout the process, that is good faith. But making changes at the 11th hour that completely neuters the intent of the bill … is not good faith in my book.”

Kessler said there was room to work together with the Mills administration. “That is not what occurred,” he said on the floor before the override failed, 78-67. 

Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Allagash)

Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) also found himself on the wrong end of Mills’ vetoes this session. In particular, Jackson and the administration sparred over a bill that would prohibit aerial spraying of glyphosate and synthetic herbicides

Mills ended up signing an executive order to have the Maine Forest Service and the Board of Pesticides Control look at the use of aerial chemicals. In a July 7 interview, Jackson said the study order “was more infuriating than just vetoing the bill.” 

“This was just a way to try to placate people from a bad veto of a very hard piece of legislation that we had passed, which wasn’t easy,” Jackson said. “The governor chose to go with the industry and come out with a whitewashed executive order that means nothing, does nothing.”

Another piece of legislation vetoed by Mills that was of particular importance to Jackson was LD 675, designed to lower prescription drug prices. Mills said in her veto message that the bill was likely unconstitutional. 

“I don’t think Gov. Mills knows what it’s like to be without health insurance and to be without prescription drugs,” Jackson said. “If you don’t come from that life, then you don’t get how important it is to people.”

He said that ultimately vetoes are part of the legislative process and are not surprising under any governor. 

“Our job as legislators is to pass bills we think are good for the state of Maine, and that’s all we can really do,” he said. “Gov. Mills is the third governor that has vetoed some of my bills so it’s not like it’s a shock or anything like that.” 

Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt (D-South Portland) sponsored a bill to, in her words, disincentivize prostitution in Maine by making the punishment for selling sex lower and for buying it much greater. This practice, she said on the floor June 30, has decreased prostitution substantially in other countries. 

Mills didn’t see it that way. 

“… Fully decriminalizing prostitution, I fear, will only increase demand and encourage the exploitation of young people by those who profit from the mistreatment of others, undermining the free will of those trapped in otherwise difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances,” Mills wrote in her veto letter. 

By vetoing a bill that would have given Maine’s Indigenous tribes the ability to operate casinos, Mills frustrated tribal leaders and members of her own party. 

The list goes on. 

Two Maine political scientists said the vetoes are not all that surprising, and are perhaps indicative of the type of leader Mills is. 

Jim Melcher, professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Mills has left her legacy in Maine by sticking to what she believes, whether or not it falls in line with her party. 

“This is a sincere attitude; she’s not posturing,” Melcher said. 

In particular, he said Mills’ background as a prosecutor gives her a different perspective on criminal justice issues. 

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, agreed that Mills has always been willing to stick up for her beliefs, even if it means going against her party. 

“Maybe some people were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been surprised,” he said.

Even if it isn’t a surprise, it may have angered more progressive members of the party, he said. 

Both Brewer and Melcher said Mills’ vetoes could have electoral implications, good and bad.

Brewer said some of the “progressive angst” over vetoes could open the door in the general election for a third-party candidate that runs to the left of Mills. Without ranked-choice voting in statewide elections, that could prove to be a challenge. For now, it is too early to know what the election will look like.

“If she’s got a third-party candidate from the left who pulls 4, 5 or 6 percent of the vote in November (2022), that could be a real problem,” Brewer said. “If I were a LePage supporter, I would be desperately hoping a progressive Democrat or Green who’s significantly left of where Mills is gets so irritated by this that they launch a third-party candidacy.”

Melcher said it is unlikely a third-party candidate to the left of Mills would emerge, especially given disdain for LePage on the left. Melcher said her vetoes would ultimately help in the general election. 

With LePage in the race, many progressive voters may hold their noses and vote for Mills despite her disagreements with Democrats this session. 

Voters may be thinking, “I don’t love what the governor did, but four more years of Paul LePage is enough to make me fall in line,” Brewer said.

Andrew Howard

Andrew Howard

Andrew Howard covers state government and politics for The Maine Monitor and is a 2021 Report for America corps member. Howard previously covered politics in Arizona as an intern at two local newspapers. Howard is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he wrote his honors thesis on the future of nonprofit news websites and was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Howard can be reached at andrew@themainemonitor.org


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