The big losers from last week’s line-item showdown — besides struggling Maine families and towns and cities, all of which have been left in the lurch — were State Senate President Kevin Raye and Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney.
Both men are running for Congress against strong Democratic incumbents and can little afford mistakes or conflicts that paint them as weak, indecisive or overly partisan.
But that’s where they both ended up, courtesy of Gov. Paul LePage.
When it comes to writing the state budget, the Legislature for many years has done something quite remarkable. Despite a devastating recession and a transition of power from Democrats to Republicans, lawmakers have been able to build state budgets that have won strong, bipartisan support.
And so it was with a supplemental budget passed two weeks ago. After a unanimous report from the Appropriations and Financial Services, and overwhelming, bipartisan support in the House, the Senate — including both Raye and Courtney — unanimously approved of the bill.
The governor was displeased with changes made by the Legislature. Members had not gone far enough in attacking poor people, despite making real reductions to the state’s General Assistance program.
General Assistance is the place people turn to as a last resort. Administered by towns and cities, the program can help keep families in their homes, pay for heating or electricity or make sure there is enough to eat.
The Legislature cut it and set up a process to make further changes down the road.
The governor demanded more.
The governor used the line-item veto to cut the funding for General Assistance, essentially leaving an unbalanced budget and towns and cities short of cash.
Maine has had the line-item veto since 1995, but this is the first time it has been used. The reason is pretty simple: It’s very limited in its power.
A simple majority of legislators in both the House and Senate can override the line-item veto and restore any appropriation or allocation disallowed by the governor.
Given Maine’s practice of passing budgets with two-thirds support, the line-item veto usually has little chance of success. Lawmakers, already on the record for a tough budget vote, have every incentive to maintain their prerogative and override.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate refused to call their members back into session to consider the line-item vetoes. Despite a unanimous vote in the Senate in support of a reasonable compromise, leaders seemed desperate to avoid a showdown with the governor.
The Legislature is scheduled to return in May, and it will be forced to deal with the question of General Assistance then.
Perhaps, they will return to the carefully negotiated position that displeased the governor. Or maybe they won’t.
For Raye and Courtney, they have an opportunity to redeem themselves.
When the budget was negotiated, leaders on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats alike, made a deal. They gave their word.
That word is at stake.
At the same time, they cannot afford to anger the loudest segments of the Republican base, which wholeheartedly cheers on Gov. LePage’s slash-and-burn approach to anti-poverty programs.
So there’s the dilemma for these two men who would like to represent Maine in Congress.
They can keep their promise and uphold a bargain that they helped to negotiate, or they can continue to allow Gov. LePage to push them around and dictate their behavior.
Both options have consequences.
Mainers expect their congressional leaders to put partisanship aside and do what’s best for the state. And to be effective, voters and other lawmakers must know that you will keep your word, otherwise nobody will take a chance on working with you on the biggest questions of the day.
Electoral success will require the foot soldiers of the party, many of whom see compromise not as the noble art of the possible but instead as a sign of betrayal of orthodoxy. Such voters tend to hold a grudge.
But it will also require appealing to swing and independent voters, who place a high premium on personal integrity and go to the polls to elect leaders, not lap dogs for a chief executive.
Despite having a narrow and unlikely path to win election this fall, Raye and Courtney are decent candidates who had the opportunity to look the part of statesmen in regards to the budget.
That’s going to be hard to salvage now.
Gov. LePage won election by appealing only to his base. But Raye and Courtney can’t win that way. They need a broader coalition, and the governor just made that harder to build.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.