Toward the end of each four-year term, governors lose sway over the Legislature, as the uncertainties of re-election loom. But Paul LePage has lost authority a lot faster than most.
The changed dynamic from last year – when Democrats had just retaken the Legislature and seemed unsure how to challenge the governor – is remarkable.
Back then, LePage drove the debate toward a single priority few Mainers shared: paying hospitals for past Medicaid debts. LePage not only got lawmakers to devote all the money from a prospective new 10-year liquor contract to that cause, but he even managed to beat back the drive to accept $1 billion in federal Medicaid funding over the next three years that would primarily benefit the same hospitals.
As policy, this makes no sense. The hospitals are undoubtedly happy to get old bills paid, but they face significant reductions in Medicare rates enacted by the Affordable Care Act, and the new Medicaid funding was supposed to balance those losses.
But as a political tactic, LePage’s unwavering, in-your-face approach worked.
This year, it’s different. For one thing, Democrats have learned something about strategy. When budget negotiations concluded last year, rather messily, there was a $40 million gap in municipal revenue sharing that a special commission was supposed to fill by closing tax loopholes.
But Republicans, perhaps chastened by LePage’s ire over their decision to override his budget veto, refused to consider any changes, labeling every proposal the commission brought up a “tax increase.”
When Republicans on the Appropriations Committee adopted the same approach, Democrats forced the issue, first by holding a vote after committee Republicans left for the day, then pushing the revenue sharing bill quickly to the floor.
They figured out that they had a political winner. State funding for towns and cities has been cut annually ever since the onset of the Great Recession, and the prospect of losing another $40 million late in their cycle of budget preparation was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
When the House voted overwhelmingly for the revenue sharing bill, LePage was so upset that in a speech to the Maine State Chamber that night, he vowed to withhold the same transportation bond he’d been praising so extravagantly two weeks earlier. But he also said he wouldn’t veto the revenue sharing bill, contradicting an earlier assertion by his press office .
The threat, if this confused pattern of thinking can be called that, backfired spectacularly. When the Senate got the revenue sharing bill, it backed it 33-2, with only one of 15 Republicans supporting the governor’s position. The bill now sits on his desk; he’s reportedly reviewing his options.
But revenue sharing isn’t the only example. LePage continues to assume Republicans will back him whenever he vetoes a bill, for whatever reason. Last year, it mostly worked, the vast majority of his 86 vetoes – a record – were sustained, sometimes by Republicans switching to oppose bills they supported earlier.
This year, LePage got things rolling by vetoing a bill to expand the federally funded summer school lunch program, which is now offered by about 60 percent of eligible school districts – those where half the children qualify for subsidized meals.
The program was strongly endorsed in bipartisan fashion in 2011, and again this year. The new bill nudged eligible districts to accept the money – Republicans called it a mandate – while providing an opt-out provision if school boards chose.
It’s a minor change, really. The Maine School Management Association was neutral. How can you really be against feeding hungry children in summer, as every district does during the regular school year?
Perhaps LePage was reacting to the bill’s sponsor – Senate President Justin Alfond, about whom he’s said many unflattering things. But by vetoing the bill, he put his erstwhile allies in an impossible position.
The Senate overrode the veto, 25-10, and then it went to the House, which also overrode, 92-45. The House Minority office quickly put out a release saying Republicans “voted to sustain” the veto, but it wasn’t quite true. There were only three GOP votes to override, but nine Republicans were absent. Some, in legislative parlance, “took a walk” rather than vote against hungry kids. Bottom line: Republicans could have sustained the veto, but didn’t.
We can expect more of the same as the session continues. LePage himself predicted the Legislature will finally accept expanded Medicaid funding, and after this week, who can doubt it?
With an erratic leader who regularly puts them on the wrong side of the fence, it’s little wonder Republican lawmakers are concluding they’re now on their own.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.