Before Saturday, no Maine governor had used the line-item veto authority given to the state’s chief executive in 1995. So it is understandable that there is confusion about what lawmakers must do. But that does not excuse the Legislature’s abdication of its responsibility to respond to the governor’s action.
On Saturday, Gov. Paul LePage used the line-item veto to strike two items from a supplemental budget overwhelming passed by lawmakers the day before. The two items were changes in general assistance and psychiatric hospital payments.
The governor said he couldn’t let these items stand because lawmakers weren’t doing enough to reduce welfare spending.
The only place where the Legislature’s responsibility in such instances is spelled out is in the House and Senate rules. The House rules regarding line-item vetoes say that lawmakers “shall act upon the disapproved item or items within 5 days of receiving the bill or resolve from the Governor.” The Senate rules include the same language, but exclude Sunday from the day count.
Legally, the word “shall” is interpreted to mean “must.” Think of rental agreements and contracts — and The 10 Commandments. So, House action is required by Thursday; the Senate by Friday.
Democratic lawmakers say they are ready to reconvene this week to vote on whether to uphold or override the governor’s line-item vetoes. Republican leaders say they’ve asked their members and most don’t want to return to Augusta this week and that the issues raised by the governor will be considered by lawmakers when they reconvene in May to handle budget changes for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Asking their members what they want to do constitutes the action required by House and Senate rules, the Republican leadership says.
By this logic, Republicans, through a behind-the-scenes, nonpublic vote, decided to sustain the governor’s line-item vetoes.
This is cowardly at minimum. Worse, it is a violation of public trust and legislative requirements.
All three members of Republican leadership in the Maine Senate are running for Congress, as are two Democrats in the Legislature. Would they abdicate the U.S. House or Senate’s budgetary responsibilities to the president, whether he be Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?
This abdication is especially odd given that the supplemental budget was passed by such lopsided votes. It passed the House with a 105-30 vote. The Senate vote was 35-0.
Did huge numbers of lawmakers secretly support Gov. LePage’s move to further cut general assistance funding? Were they too scared to vote against the budget to make this point? But now they’ll hide behind the governor’s veto?
“The political spotlight now should rest on the Republicans in the Legislature who voted for the provisions LePage vetoed,” University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried, a progressive, wrote on her blog. “Their decision not to reconvene to vote on the vetoes suggests they may be trying to have it both ways, to vote for the bipartisan compromise and then to refuse to uphold it.”
There is little recourse to right this wrong. Only the Legislature can enforce its own rules. So far, no lawmakers have stepped forward to insist that the House and Senate follow their rules regarding the line-item veto.
The true loser in this scenario is the public, which is left in the dark — and will likely have to pay higher taxes due to the unchallenged budget changes.