On the verge of his first legislative success and on the eve of the most important bill he’s likely to introduce this year, Gov. Paul LePage put it all at risk.
Word started to spread that the governor was considering a veto of the supplemental budget that the Appropriations Committee had passed unanimously.
Cushioned by improving state revenues, the supplemental budget wasn’t controversial, and the Appropriations Committee delivered Gov. LePage his first budget-related win.
As has become the custom on Appropriations, there was no partisanship or rancor. Instead, the 13 members of the committee got to work on the people’s business.
When Gov. LePage learned that the committee had increased municipal revenue sharing by $1 million, he started talking veto.
Even as the bill breezed through the Legislature with overwhelming, bipartisan margins, there remained a lingering question of whether the governor would sign it.
Gov. LePage signed the bill on Tuesday night, but not before standing up legislators and causing some strain with members of the Appropriations Committee and the Legislature.
The Legislature plays a fundamental role in the development of public policy. And while Republicans hold the majority in both the House and Senate, members will jealously guard their prerogative to be involved in setting public policy.
They may like the governor. They may agree with him on a lot of issues. But they are not spectators. Politics is a game of participation. Nobody runs for office unless they think their ideas have merit.
Thursday, Gov. Paul LePage will address a joint session of the Legislature and release information about his first two-year state budget.
Members of the Legislature will stand and applaud. They will be polite and cautious. And they will wonder if the governor is a partner or someone who will try to bull his policies through.
For all governors, the two-year budget is the lynchpin of their policy goals.
It is the most important single piece of legislation the governor is likely to introduce this year because it sets the direction of state spending, and it will likely be his legislative priority in the weeks and months ahead.
The budget is also the governor’s biggest opportunity to fulfill some of the promises he made during the campaign.
But the two-year state budget is always complex and guaranteed to be controversial.
And the new governor, in his first budget, will overreach.
Not because he is Paul LePage, but like other new governors he has lots of promises to keep and a burning desire to make his mark.
By necessity, the Legislature is reactionary. Its work begins from a baseline drawn by the governor, and the members are largely dependent upon his administration for information.
The Legislature will exercise its legitimate and necessary duty of scrutinizing the budget and changing it.
Once that work begins, things can go a few different ways.
The governor can work with Legislative leaders, particularly on the Appropriations Committee, to find a bipartisan path forward. He can work only with Republicans and try for a very controversial partisan budget. He can thumb his nose at the entire Legislature, and tell them to fall in line.
The governor can overplay his hand. And then the Legislature can cut him out of the picture.
And the final alternative is that Maine falls under the same kind of partisan gridlock that has paralyzed other states and Washington, D.C. If that happens, we could find ourselves facing a government shutdown.
While the notion of shutting down the government might sound OK to some folks, it would be disastrous for the state.
The governor has said the right things in the past. During the campaign, he told WCSH-TV that he’s not a “my way or the highway” type of leader. But he almost was that type of leader on the supplemental budget.
When it comes to the cornerstone of his first legislative session and his first two-year budget, is the governor willing to compromise and work with the Legislature and other stakeholders?
Or will his temper, street-fighter mentality and his certainty about the righteousness of his ideas make collaboration impossible?
The stakes are high and the wrong choice could hurt our state for years to come.
David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.