Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ bill expanding abortion access beyond the state’s current fetal viability restriction appears poised for passage in the Maine Legislature. But it has also energized abortion opponents, who might test voters’ willingness to overturn it if it passes.
The prospect of a possible people’s veto referendum emerged almost immediately after more than 600 anti-abortion activists filled the State House this week to testify against the governor’s bill. The Christian Civic League of Maine, one of the state’s most influential anti-abortion groups, helped organize the turnout, which stretched the hearing in front of the Judiciary Committee to nearly 20 hours, ending it the morning after it began.
That same group would play a key role in organizing a people’s veto referendum, and its director, Carroll Conley, told Maine Public this week that such a campaign is a consideration.
But for now, Conley says the group is currently focusing its efforts on persuading a small group of House Democrats who have expressed reservations about the governor’s proposal to vote against it.
“Yeah, it’s a consideration,” he said of a potential people’s veto campaign. “I can say from the strategic point we don’t want to get ahead of that. We don’t agree with the idea that this is something that can’t be stopped (in the Legislature).”
The bill extends abortion access beyond the point of viability to later in a pregnancy if a doctor deems it medically necessary. Right now, the only exception to the current restriction is to protect the life or health of the mother.
Supporters argue that the bill eliminates a patchwork of restriction laws that don’t — and can’t — contemplate the various complications a woman might experience during a pregnancy and would put the decision to abort a pregnancy squarely between a woman and her doctor.
But opponents are characterizing the proposal as an extreme overreach by the governor and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
The Christian Civic League helped mobilize like-minded churches for Monday’s public hearing. It would likely play a key role in organizing a people’s veto effort, just as it did in 2009 when it and other groups aligned with the religious right helped convince voters to repeal the Legislature’s first attempt to legalize same-sex marriage. It didn’t fare as well in 2012, when same-sex marriage supporters legalized such unions for a second time despite opposition from Protect Marriage Maine, a group that included the CCL and tapped funding from the National Organization for Marriage.
The CCL might find similar financial assistance from national anti-abortion groups if Mills’ abortion bill becomes law. But Conley says he’s hoping to avoid a people’s veto, which would be costly and labor intensive.
His preference is to defeat the bill in the Legislature, a prospect that he admits will be difficult.
There are 103 Democrats in the Legislature, and more than 90 are co-sponsors of the governor’s bill. Nineteen of 22 Senate Democrats have signed on, but Conley says it’s a small group of House Democrats who will determine the bill’s fate.
Should it happen, a people’s veto campaign by abortion opponents would likely encounter stiff resistance from Democratic-aligned groups, including Planned Parenthood. The group’s local political action committee spent nearly $1 million boosting abortion-rights candidates during the 2022 election.
Attorney general’s error becomes anti-abortion talking point
Most of the arguments made against the abortion bill during Monday’s marathon public hearing were rooted in religious, philosophical or moral objections to abortion.
But some opponents have also argued that the bill isn’t necessary from a policy standpoint. And they’re pointing to the following line from a memo from the Maine attorney general’s office as proof:
“Maine law also provides exceptions to the viability restriction to save the life or health of the pregnant person or in the case of a fatal fetal diagnosis,” reads the July 2022 “Know Your Rights: Abortion in Maine” memo, released soon after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Opponents have seized on that last clause to say that doctors in Maine could already legally terminate a later-term pregnancy in the tragic instances that Mills said inspired her to introduce the bill.
That’s clearly not how Maine’s statute reads, however. When contacted about the discrepancy, special assistant to the attorney general Danna Hayes looked into the issue and replied: “Upon review, that section of the flyer is an error and not reflective of current Maine law. We apologize for any confusion this has caused.”
Opponents, and particularly Republican lawmakers, continued to incorporate the erroneous memo in their talking points against the bill this week, however. For instance, House Minority Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham distributed a copy of the memo to Judiciary Committee members.
“It states very clearly that abortions in the case of a fatal fetal diagnosis are already legal in the state of Maine,” Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, told the committee during the final minutes of the committee’s 19-hour hearing on LD 1619.
Potential conflicts within conflicts
The attorney general’s office is also at the center of an increasingly complex (and messy) dispute between the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The committee is suing DHHS for access to confidential case files for four children who reportedly died of abuse or neglect even though they were supposed to be under the protective eye of Maine’s child welfare services. A Superior Court judge rejected the lawsuit last winter on grounds that the law only grants access to those files to the investigative agency that reports to the committee, the Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability, which then reports back to the committee. The committee’s appeal to Maine’s highest court is still pending.
The lawsuit already created an undeniably awkward situation in which separate attorneys from the attorney general’s office, which typically represents that state in court, were simultaneously fighting against handing over the files on behalf of DHHS while also pleading the committee’s case for access to those records.
But things got even messier when Attorney General Aaron Frey disclosed he had been in a relationship with an employee who reported to him. That employee, an assistant attorney general, is now reporting to deputy attorney general Chris Taub rather than to Frey.
But it turns out that Taub and the assistant AG are the two attorneys on opposite sides of the court battle over whether the Government Oversight Committee should have access to those confidential DHHS case files.
Meanwhile, members of the committee opened a second front in their battle for access this week in the form of two bills that would rewrite Maine’s law to explicitly grant the committee members access to confidential or privileged records. The State and Local Government Committee will vote on the bills, LDs 1725 and 1744, in the coming weeks.
LePage a Florida man again
Former Gov. Paul LePage has, once again, dropped off Maine’s tax and voter rolls.
According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, LePage registered to vote in Ormond Beach, Florida, on March 16, roughly four months after his election loss.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows Maine politics or LePage’s on-and-off-again relationship with his native state. The Republican immediately moved to Florida after leaving office in 2019, saying he wanted to take advantage of the Sunshine State’s lack of an income tax. He then moved back to Maine and re-registered to vote in Edgecomb prior to announcing his plans to seek a third, nonconsecutive term as governor.
LePage made phasing out the income tax a major focus of his 2022 campaign, saying Maine was losing businesses and residents to lower-tax states like Florida and New Hampshire. Democrats, meanwhile, portrayed his residency flip-flop as a lack of commitment to Maine. He ultimately lost to Mills by a 13-point margin.