AUGUSTA, Maine — In the first legislative session of his tenure as governor, Gov. Paul LePage is on pace to see more bills recalled from his desk than his predecessor saw during his entire eight years in the Blaine House.
As of Friday, 18 bills had been recalled by either the House or Senate, which means the governor offered suggestions for changes after the bill passed but before he signed.
According to the state’s legislative record, Gov. John Baldacci recalled only 20 bills total during four legislatures between 2001-2008.
Democrats this week were puzzled not necessarily by the fact that LePage has recalled so many bills, but why.
According to Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, the few bills he remembers that were recalled during the Baldacci administration were done so to correct minor mistakes.
“In his case, [Governor LePage] is saying ‘I don’t like this and I’m going to veto this if you don’t change something,’” Duchesne said. “That’s not what the governor does.”
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokesman, said recalls are simply a part of the legislative process and contended that LePage is just being thorough.
“This is the first go-around for this governor and he’s looking over every bill very carefully,” she said.
Senate President Kevin Raye said Friday that he doesn’t believe the governor’s propensity for using his power to amend bills is a knock on the legislative process.
“This governor pays close attention to detail. That’s really to his credit,” Raye said.
When a piece of legislation is passed by the Maine House and Senate, it goes to the governor’s desk for either his signature or veto. The governor also has the option of allowing a bill to become law without his signature. Another option, though, is a recall. The governor suggests changes, whether minor or major, to the legislation in question, and the chamber where the bill originated can recall it from the governor’s desk.
An analysis of bills recalled so far by LePage shows that more than two-thirds are Republican-sponsored bills. None are particularly controversial, and many passed through the House and Senate unanimously.
Further, the Legislature has gone along with the governor’s changes. In 13 of the 16 recalled bills, the governor’s changes were made and then passed quietly. In the remaining three, the bills were indefinitely postponed.
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said LePage’s tactics are not surprising.
“It fits into what we know about him. He’s aggressive. He wants things the way he wants them,” Brewer said. “What is surprising is the complete and utter lack of institutional push-back by the Legislature.”
Rep. Meredith Strang-Burgess, a Cumberland Republican and chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said 10 of the recalled bills went through her committee, including one that she sponsored.
“It’s [the governor’s] right to do this, but it’s a little challenging as a legislator at this late date to figure out what’s the best thing for us to do,” she said Friday.
Duchesne said the recalls are little more than a power grab on LePage’s part, a way for him to show legislators — even those in his own party — who is calling the shots.
In addition to the recalls, LePage has vetoed four bills so far, all of which have been sustained. The House and Senate can override a governor’s vote with a two-thirds majority, but that hasn’t happened yet during the 125th Legislature.
Duchesne said he does not expect that trend to continue for long.
“So far, the [Republican] majority is supporting their governor,” he said. “That has to come to an end, but it will have to be on the right issue. As a legislature, we can’t reduce ourselves like this.”
Rep. Peter Kent, D-Woolwich, remarked this week on LePage’s veto of his bill that sought to create a working group to study special education due process hearings.
“There is no reasoning or logic to this veto, there is no critical thinking. I get absolutely no sense that the reasons — the reasoning — behind this veto is even related to the resolve before us,” Kent said on the House floor. “As a body, we need to send a clear message that we do not accept a veto for veto’s sake; a veto simply because you can. We expect clear, thoughtful and critical explanation before we agree to dismiss the work that this body has done.”
If there are any trends from the bills LePage has vetoed — or from the others that have been recalled — they concern study commissions and unnecessary fees or spending. He referenced both in his veto statement of Kent’s bill.
“Despite the best intentions of this resolve’s sponsor, I am concerned that resolves,
such as this one force us to spend limited resources exploring conceptual policy
positions that may or may not be acted upon by the Legislature in the future,” the governor wrote, adding that these types of resolves “serve to distract the state from the objectives of shrinking government and creating jobs.”
Strang-Burgess agreed that it was puzzling that most of the recalled bills were passed unanimously but she said the recalls demonstrate the governor’s ideological beliefs.
“We’ve been told that the governor has low or no tolerance for resolves and also low or no tolerance for study groups,” she said. “But most of these [study groups] are at no cost to the state and deal with issues that are important. So, that’s frustrating.”
There are dozens more bills sitting on the governor’s desk waiting for action and some are wondering how many more might be recalled or vetoed in the coming days.
In many cases, members of LePage’s own administration testified in support of the bills he has tinkered with. Some have questioned whether or not LePage has a keen understanding of the process or the separation of powers outlined in the state Constitution.
David Farmer, who was Baldacci’s communications director and deputy chief of staff for four years and who writes a column for the BDN’s opinion section, said his former boss did not use the recall process often because he didn’t need to.
“We worked very closely with the Legislature, so they were always aware of the governor’s position,” Farmer said. “If changes needed to be made, there were done well before [a bill] got to his desk.”
Raye, however, said it’s not realistic to think that the governor can be engaged on every bill as it goes through the process.
One recall from this week allowed LePage to alter LD 1573, an act to allow retired dentists to obtain a license to practice in nonprofit clinics. The change reduced the licensing fee from $200 to $75, even though a legislative committee and then the full Legislature agreed to the $200 fee. The Maine Dental Association — a nonpartisan group — also had supported the bill.
Duchesne said the governor could simply be responding to concerns that came up after the bill was passed.
“More likely, he just wasn’t paying attention during the legislative process,” the Hudson Democrat said.
The real test could be what LePage does with the budget. After months of negotiations and concessions from both Republicans and Democrats, the $6.1 billion biennial budget passed with comfortable majorities in the House (123-19) and Senate (29-5).
Earlier in the legislative session, LePage referred to the budget as “his budget” and threatened to veto any items that fail to meet the priorities outlined during his campaign. The budget passed by the legislature does not meet all of LePage’s criteria, but he has not indicated whether he plans to veto any or all of the budget.
LePage has not seen recalls of bills that would have broad or significant impacts on most Mainers and he has not vetoed anything particularly controversial.
Republicans have shown good party discipline and unity lately, especially since a group of eight GOP senators collectively wrote an OpEd that criticized LePage’s frequent controversial comments and rhetoric. For his part, LePage has been decidedly low-key since that OpEd as well.