AUGUSTA — Democrats reacted angrily Wednesday to a decision by Republican legislators not to break up a monthlong recess to take up two of the governor’s line-item budget vetoes, saying the GOP breached the public trust and damaged hopes for bipartisanship when the session resumes.
Republicans said suggestions of a crisis are being overblown and that the Democrats’ concerns can be addressed when lawmakers return May 15.
The partisan sparring ensued after Republican majority leaders announced Tuesday that most of their members had no interest in considering this week whether to override Gov. Paul LePage’s line-item vetoes of two items in the recently enacted budget balancing bill. It would take a majority vote to override those vetoes, which dealt with general assistance, the all-purpose welfare program run by cities and towns, and Medicaid funding for institutional care.
Senate Democratic leader Barry Hobbins of Saco released a statement saying Republicans “just pulled the ultimate flip-flop. Less than a week ago there was resounding bipartisan support for the budget. Today, legislative Republicans have shown a fundamental lack of courage.”
Democrats also demanded a list of how the Republican lawmakers voted, and GOP officials were preparing a response.
The lead House Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, called the Republicans’ action “a breach of trust and an insult to the bipartisan work” of the committee, which had unanimously supported the budget.
The vetoed item in the spending document which raised the most interest concerns the general assistance program. The budget would have cut the current maximum of 90 percent to 85 percent, but LePage wanted that cut to 50 percent.
Democrats also warned that a severe cut in general assistance aid will shift taxes to property taxpayers.
Republicans said that’s not necessarily true. Senate Republican Leader Jon Courtney of Springvale said the general assistance changes wouldn’t kick in until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Lawmakers will have time before then to negotiate an acceptable figure, he said.
“This is a small part of the budget,” said Courtney. “I don’t think it’s a crisis some people make it out to be.”
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who’s leading a group of mayors who oppose general assistance cuts, said they want lawmakers to once again embrace the budget deal that was approved.
“We’re hopeful when they convene again they’ll stand by that compromise that’s been agreed to,” said Brennan.
The governor is open to further discussions but insists on deeper cuts in general assistance, saying its costs have risen from $6.7 million in fiscal 2008 to a projected $14.3 million in sharply and such sharp rises can’t be sustained.
“He would encourage an open dialogue between legislators and himself to work toward the structural changes that are needed,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.