Republican legislative leaders are doubtless feeling between a rock and a hard place, but they’ve put themselves there.
Gov. Paul LePage posed a dilemma for the GOP when, after saying he wouldn’t sign a supplemental budget lawmakers passed overwhelmingly just before leaving town for a month, instead used his line-item veto.
LePage struck out money for the General Assistance program that towns and cities administer, largely with state funding, and also registered disagreement with the way lawmakers dealt with cuts to hospitals; it’s the GA item that exercises LePage.
The line-item veto, added to the state constitution in 1995, had never been used before. When a governor vetoes, the Legislature has five days to act. Legislative rules say lawmakers “shall” reconvene to consider the line-item veto, which can be overridden by majority vote – a modest standard, given that the budget passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House.
It seemed pretty clear that legislators would recheck their vacation schedules and return to Augusta for a day. But that’s not what happened.
Democrats, a minority in both House and Senate, but a substantial one, said they’d come back. Instead of asking their members which day was best, as one would expect, Senate President Kevin Raye and House Speaker Bob Nutting asked a different question --whether Republicans wanted to return. Reportedly, two-thirds said no. Raye then said Republicans had not “consented,” so no session would occur.
Whatever the legalistics, this is not what voters expect from their representatives. Veto override votes are routine. Lawmakers failed to override LePage’s first 16 vetoes, but finally did strike one down – sending a message that the Legislature is a co-equal branch. By refusing to contest the latest LePage vetoes, that message has been muddled.
And the businesslike relationship between the two parties, which has survived several tough budget votes, may now be fractured. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, the leading Democratic voice on the Appropriations Committee, said she felt “betrayed,” adding “What’s the point of negotiating an agreement if that agreement is going to be broken?”
Sen. Richard Rosen, Appropriations co-chair, said the vetoes didn’t really matter, because the budget items can be reconsidered when lawmakers return on May 15. Unfortunately, he didn’t say what might have satisfied Democrats – a pledge to re-enact the items the same way they now appear.
Rosen also made the curious statement that, “The governor made it clear: If we did override, he would veto the entire budget.” For the override would simply require the same two-thirds vote that enacted the budget in the first place. Are Republicans afraid of defending their votes?
All in all, GOP leaders’ actions have been puzzling. On some days, they seem to declare that the Legislature has a voice, and Gov. LePage doesn’t run state government by himself. On other days, they acquiesce in exactly that interpretation with a governor who, in his latest remarks, compared the Legislature to “the largest adult day care center in Maine.”
It’s a simple question. Who do legislators listen to most? The governor, or their constituents? Lawmakers facing re-election in six months might want to consider this carefully.
At LePage’s behest, Republican lawmakers have taken difficult votes. One that endangers incumbents wherever state employees and retirees are numerous was to cut pension benefits across the board, retroactively taking away retirement income that had been promised to thousands of state workers and teachers – a decision now being challenged in federal court.
The retirement system’s unfunded liability may have made the vote inevitable, but it’s a big political risk.
There was nothing inevitable about Republican bills to remove union status for workers at the former DeCoster Egg Farms, notorious for inhumane conditions for employees and chickens alike, and day care workers, measures which passed on strict party-line votes, and seem petty and peevish.
When lawmakers do finally return next month, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to end a session that was supposed to be over in mid-April. They adjourned because the administration couldn’t provide accurate numbers about the state’s Medicaid program, and it’s likely that there are more cuts ahead. It’s not as if LePage is doing his allies any favors.
It’s possible GOP leaders have already concluded they’ll lose in November, and it’s better to enact what they can now, rather than try to please constituents. That might explain their curious reluctance to reconvene, as the rules say they should. Otherwise, it’s a decision they’ll soon regret.