Governor’s Signing Deadline Causes Confusion in Maine, Other States

Maine’s Supreme Court recently sided with the state’s legislature in a bitter and odd dispute over the Governor’s signing deadline and whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage had waited too long to take action on a group of 65 bills. Because the Governor took too long to take action on the bills, they took effect without his signature per the state’s constitution. This was seen as a big win for Democrats in the legislature, who have long had a contemptuous relationship with the Tea Party affiliated Governor. Earlier this year, LePage had pledged to veto all bills presented to him that were sponsored by Democrats. The unanimous decision by the state’s highest court found that Governor LePage misinterpreted the state constitution, thinking it allowed him more than 10 days to veto the bills, and that the bills will take effect without his signature. A full list of the bills in question can be found here.

The problem in questions lies in opposing readings of the unclear Maine constitution, which states that the Governor has 10 days to sign or veto legislation presented to him or it becomes law without signature during the legislative session. If the legislature is in final adjournment, the Governor has no deadline to sign, veto or pocket veto the bills. In this case the legislature was in recess, not final adjournment, and the Governor assumed that his reading of the constitution allowed him a longer window to take action on these bills. The state’s Supreme Court sided with the legislature and found that the Governor had missed the deadline.

If this seems unclear, it’s because it is – the process is rarely clear cut in any state and while this may seem like an unusual situation, confusion in constitutional language relating to Governors’ signing deadlines is not uncommon. A number of state constitutions have language that is either unclear, as in Maine, or that is in conflict with how the legislature functions on a day-to-day basis.

In Rhode Island, the Governor has a 10 day deadline to sign bills after the legislative session has adjourned or they become law without signature. However, because of the way Rhode Island schedules their legislative sessions, the state never actually adjourns and this deadline never takes effect. Similarly in Wisconsin, bills are considered pocket vetoed if the legislature adjourns during the Governor’s usual six-day signing period. Like Rhode Island, Wisconsin’s legislature never actually adjourns throughout the year so the Governor never realistically has the opportunity to pocket veto a bill.

Other states also have restrictions on when enrolled bills may be delivered to the Governor: Montana and South Dakota both require bills to be presented to the executive prior to final adjournment. In Vermont, the Governor may be presented bills at any time throughout the year as they must first go through a review process by the legislative council, which can take months.

Signing deadlines often vary in states that hold two-year biennial sessions where legislation may carry over from the first year to the second. Because many of these states technically do not adjourn on odd numbered years, signing deadlines often vary between even and odd numbered years, when legislatures recess for extended periods of time during the first year before adjourning on the second. With the second year of the biennium fast approaching for many states, there will be a number of more concrete deadlines for states to go off.