June 25, 2018
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Fight over LePage’s line-item vetoes not over

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Gov. Paul LePage speaks in Waterville in September 2010.
By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Without a precedent, there is no playbook for how to move forward after a line-item veto. That has led to confusion, disagreement and political calculations by lawmakers in the days since the governor used his veto pen to reject two lines in the supplemental budget.

Maine voters in 1995 approved a constitutional amendment that allows the governor to issue line-item vetoes on any budgets.

It took 17 years, but Gov. Paul LePage became the first chief executive to use that power when he eliminated two lines he didn’t like from a 2012-13 supplemental budget.

The constitutional amendment allowing line-item vetoes does not get into specifics. It says that a governor can use that power, but it also says that the Legislature can consider and overturn those line-item vetoes with a simple majority vote.

As for how that process happens, lawmakers need to turn to their own rules. The House and Senate have separate rules, but they say pretty much the same thing: The Legislature “shall act” on the governor’s line-item veto within five days.

Democrats and Republicans agree that “shall” in this case means “must.”

However, there is a disagreement among Democrats and Republicans about what constitutes “action.”

Democrats have argued that action means calling the Legislature back and taking an on-the-record vote. Republicans say that’s not needed.

Instead, they polled their members about whether they should reconvene and address the governor’s two line-item vetoes, which stripped funding for general assistance and psychiatric facilities.

House and Senate Democrats overwhelmingly supported reconvening. About two-thirds of Republican lawmakers said they didn’t want to come back.

To the Republicans, that constitutes action.

As lawmakers continue to disagree about their responsibility, the matter has turned into a political battle.

“The results of your caucus polls have the same effect as sustaining the line-item vetoes, but without the constitutional duty of having convened and voted in each respective legislative body,” Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, wrote in a letter to Republican leaders. “We feel strongly that such consideration and a consequential vote, especially on the first-ever line item veto, should not take place far from the public eye.”

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, stressed on Tuesday that there was no need to bring lawmakers back this week to consider the line-item vetoes.

Both items — general assistance and “disproportionate share” funding to psychiatric facilities — can and likely will be addressed in the Department of Health and Human Services 2013 supplemental budget, they said. Lawmakers already were scheduled to come back in May to vote on that budget.

Raye’s office provided the Bangor Daily News with the results of the informal poll of Republican Senate members. All but four GOP senators said they did not want to reconvene this week.

Nutting’s office said late Wednesday that it is still considering a request by the BDN to obtain the House Republican poll results.

The supplemental budget passed unanimously through the Appropriations Committee and then was approved last Friday by a vote of 105-30 in the Maine House and 35-0 in the Maine Senate.

“This is a breach of trust and an insult to the bipartisan work of the Appropriations Committee,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the committee. “What incentive do we have to work together when the majority has shown it will simply renege on its agreements? This is an end-run around the process.”

If the line-item vetoes are upheld and 10 days pass from when the Legislature passed the budget, it becomes law with or without the governor’s signature. LePage has said that if his line-item vetoes were overturned, he would veto the entire budget.

As lawmakers jockeyed for political positions on the line-item vetoes, others were focused on the impact. The governor’s action leaves a big unknown in the general assistance program which municipalities will need to consider as they begin crafting their budgets.

“The Legislature’s failure to uphold the state’s commitment to general assistance will leave thousands of Maine families to struggle in a tough economy without our most basic safety net, which has helped to keep people in their homes and food on the table,” said Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners and a member of Maine Can Do Better. “If not corrected, the governor’s actions will have a devastating effect on Maine communities and people. It will cause greater hunger and homelessness and shift new costs on to property taxpayers.”

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