POLL QUESTION

LePage uses line-item veto on general assistance budget item, Legislature may be forced to reconvene

Posted April 14, 2012, at 1:04 p.m.
Last modified April 15, 2012, at 4:47 p.m.

Poll Question

Gov. Paul LePage speaks in Rockland in March 2012.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks in Rockland in March 2012. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — It appears Gov. Paul LePage is not giving up on a battle with the Legislature over his supplemental budget package.

LePage on Saturday issued what are known as line-item vetoes on two parts of the budget that passed overwhelmingly through the House and Senate on Friday. It’s the first time a Maine governor has ever used that particular executive branch power.

Line-item vetoes apply only to dollar amounts contained in the budget and not budget language. The two issued by the governor reportedly address funding of general assistance for the 2013 fiscal year and the disproportionate share to hospitals and psychiatric facilities, which offsets losses in federal funding.

“General Assistance is a welfare program that, like most others, has gotten out of control,” the governor said in his veto letter. “The amounts vetoed will put this issue back on the table and the Legislature must summon the political courage to fix the program structurally. Hiding from our problems will not make them go away. The Maine people expect leadership and those in Augusta must deliver.”

LePage appeared to issue a challenge to lawmakers.

“We need a profile in courage in Augusta. We must do what is right, without regards to the next election,” he said. “It’s why we all took that solemn oath and that is why I ask each and every one of you for your support on these vetoes.”

Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he received word of the line-item vetoes on Saturday.

“I would expect that members of the committee and leadership on both sides of the aisle will meet to discuss the possibility of reconvening the Legislature and how to respond to the governor’s line-item veto,” he said.

It’s an interesting move by the governor. If he had vetoed the entire budget, it would have taken more than a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

However, with line-item vetoes, only a simple majority is needed to overturn.

The timing is different, too. With line items, he has only 24 hours after final passage by the Legislature. With a simple veto, LePage has 10 days to veto, which means he could still veto the entire budget.

The House enacted the budget Friday with a 105-30 vote. The Senate vote was 35-0. Both were above the two-thirds majority threshold.

“With the resounding support of both Democrats and Republicans, we were successful at passing a budget for the state of Maine,” Senate Democratic Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco said Saturday in response to the vetoes. “Governor LePage’s actions in this case are puzzling and disappointing.”

Added House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono: “The governor didn’t get what he wanted. Now, cities, towns and taxpayers will pay the price in rising property taxes. The cost shift will fall squarely on middle-class families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

“Republicans and Democrats worked together to find a way to pay the bills, and address the concerns of our cities and towns. It’s clear now that the governor is more interested in getting a pound of flesh than balancing the books.”

Some came to LePage’s defense, including the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group.

“We applaud Governor LePage for taking this step to correct significant problems with the Legislature’s changes to his proposed supplemental budget. Once again, the governor has stepped up as a true leader for the taxpayers of Maine,” CEO Lance Dutson said in a statement. “The Legislature continues an unfortunate pattern of capitulation to the tax-and-spend liberals who have run Maine’s economy into the ground for decades. The people of this state elected new leadership in order to make significant changes to the way we run government, not to go to Augusta and make friends.”

It’s not entirely clear what will happen next. The line-item vetoes need to be affirmed or overturned by the Legislature within five days.

Many lawmakers planned to take next week off, knowing that the Legislature would be in recess until mid-May. That’s when the Legislature needs to come back to settle a second supplemental budget addressing an estimated $85 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now, they almost certainly will be summoned back sooner.

LePage already had indicated in a statement on Thursday that he would not sign the budget because it doesn’t do enough to address overspending in the state’s general assistance program.

“I cannot put my signature on a bill that largely ignores welfare reform,” he said. “I am looking at a way to sustain our welfare programs. This budget keeps Maine on the same path it’s been on for 40 years and I will not be held hostage and forced to sign a budget that is irresponsible.”

The budget could still become law without his signature after 10 days.

The supplement budget package contains a total of $31 million in new spending for 2012 and 2013, which is offset by $41.8 million in general fund savings. Much of the document involves shifting savings from one area to fund a shortfall somewhere else.

The general assistance portion is what caused the most heartburn among members of the Appropriations Committee, but they eventually reached a unanimous compromise.

The compromise addresses a $4 million general assistance shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year and funds all but $1.7 million of an estimated $8 million shortfall in 2013.

In order to fund general assistance at the lower total for 2013, the budget reduces from 90 percent to 85 percent the maximum reimbursement to service center communities such as Portland and Bangor that distribute the most assistance, reduces the maximum individual benefit amount by 10 percent, and caps housing assistance at nine months, with some exceptions.

Additionally, a task force made up of DHHS members and stakeholders was created to find ways to make the program more efficient. Mayors of Maine’s biggest cities worked with lawmakers on the general assistance compromise.

The governor, however, wanted to go much further with cuts.

He proposed limiting housing assistance to 90 days with no exceptions, reducing general assistance reimbursement to 50 percent across the board and prohibiting general assistance to any individuals who are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

Those were all rejected by lawmakers as too extreme.

Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.

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