AUGUSTA, Maine — Top Democrats in the Maine House and Senate sent a letter early Tuesday to their Republican counterparts urging them to call the Legislature back this week to vote on line-item vetoes issued by Gov. Paul LePage.
In their letter, Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco and House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono stressed that it is lawmakers’ “constitutional obligation to convene to address the governor’s veto.”
“Failing to … will be an abrogation of our constitutional responsibilities and an erosion of the doctrine of separation of powers,” Cain and Hobbins wrote.
Pressure also is coming from municipalities such as Bangor that stand to be affected the most by the governor’s general assistance veto.
Bangor City Council chairman Cary Weston, a Republican and a LePage supporter, said Tuesday that he agrees with the governor about restructuring the general assistance program.
“But passing the buck to municipalities is not the way to change the program,” he said, adding
that if the governor’s veto is sustained, Bangor would lose more than $1 million in general assistance reimbursement, or about $1 on the city’s tax rate if an equivalent amount of spending is not reduced.
In order for the Legislature to convene this week, enough members need to agree to come back. Democrats are all-but united. Spokesmen for House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Tuesday that polling of GOP members was likely to get under way soon.
Line-item vetoes are possible in Maine because of a constitutional amendment that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1995. That amendment gives the governor the ability to strike specific dollar amounts from any budget with a provision that the Legislature can override with a majority vote.
Since it passed, Maine has had three governors, but until Saturday the executive line-item veto power had never been used.
LePage used his power to eliminate funding in two sections of the 2012-13 supplemental budget package that had passed overwhelmingly through the House and Senate last Friday:
• Funding of general assistance for the 2013 fiscal year.
• The “disproportionate share” funding to hospitals and psychiatric facilities, which was included in the budget to offset losses in federal funding.
The Legislature has until Friday to reconvene and take votes on the governor’s vetoes. However, since a line-item veto has not been used since the constitutional amendment passed there is no precedent for what happens next.
At the moment, the Legislature technically is in recess until May 15. That’s when lawmakers need to come back to settle a second supplemental budget addressing an estimated $85 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.
To reconvene earlier than that date, the Legislature must either be called back by the governor for an “extraordinary occasion,” or with the consent of a majority of the members of each political party after being polled. Again, if that doesn’t happen, the vetoes are upheld.
Democrats are concerned that if the Legislature does not come back, it would go against what Maine voters approved in 1995 and threaten the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
LePage indicated even before the House and Senate votes that he would not sign the budget. He also said in a radio interview on Monday that if the Legislature overrides his line-item vetoes, he would veto the entire budget. Unlike line-item vetoes, which need only a simple majority to override, a traditional veto needs a two-thirds majority.
LePage said during the same interview that he would keep the Legislature in session until he gets a balanced budget “without gimmicks.”
But the budget that passed last Friday is a balanced budget — as is required by the state Constitution — and members of the Appropriations Committee worked hard to ensure that.
The governor’s line-item vetoes put the budget out of balance.
Saturday’s action shows LePage has drawn a line in the sand on welfare reform.
“I am looking at a way to sustain our welfare programs,” he said. “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.”
He has pushed for structural changes to a number of assistance and entitlement programs since he has taken office. In some cases, he has been successful. In others, lawmakers have determined that his cuts are too extreme.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said he believes LePage truly believes that the state’s welfare system is broken and that the level of benefits being provided saps an individual’s will to succeed.
He also said LePage could be expending significant political capital by using his line-item veto power.
The budget not only passed unanimously through the Appropriations Committee, it was a approved 105-30 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate. By issuing the line-item vetoes, the governor essentially is telling 140 lawmakers that they are wrong and he’s right, according to Brewer.
In his veto letter, LePage wrote, “We need a profile in courage in Augusta. 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.”
Some, even those in his own party, may not like his choice of words.
“Right now, he’s not building a lot of good will among Republicans in the Legislature, who frankly have given him a lot of what he asked for,” Brewer said. “The one thing I wonder whether the governor understands is: In government, there is no CEO. These are equal branches.”
Lawmakers made minor reductions in the budget to general assistance by reducing the reimbursement rate to service center municipalities from 90 percent to 85 percent and by capping housing assistance at nine months, with some exceptions.
The budget also creates a task force of Department of Health and Human Services members and stakeholders that will come up with ways to make the program more cost-effective in the years ahead.
Weston said Bangor officials were looking forward to studying general assistance into the summer and fall months.
He also noted that the rise in general assistance payouts by municipalities has coincided with a significant backlog of Social Security disability applications. That process can take anywhere from six to 18 months and, while they’re waiting, many low-income Mainers have nowhere else to turn but general assistance.
Ultimately, the supplemental budget passed by the Legislature funds 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.
To the governor, that’s “kicking the can down the road.” To lawmakers, it’s ensuring that Maine’s neediest are not forced out on the street.
Either way, House members and senators now have to come back and face the issue.
“If I were a Republican, I’d be livid because instead of being out there on the campaign trail talking about accomplishments, you have to deal with this,” Brewer said. “I think LePage comes out looking good because he has a talking point no matter what happens. But, for the Republican party as a whole, it’s lose-lose.”
Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.