AUGUSTA, Maine — They voted for it before they voted against it.
That old cliche is going to be haunting a host of state lawmakers this year as they try to explain why the abandoned bills they previously supported to sustain vetoes of the legislation by Gov. Paul LePage.
The most recent examples include Rep. Jarrod Crocket, R-Bethel, who voted in favor of a bill that would have allowed Maine to accept federal funds to expand the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare.
In fact, Crockett voted for the bill three times — on June 3, June 12 and June 19, when he voted to override a veto of the bill by Gov. Paul LePage. But when the veto vote was reconsidered later that day, Crockett voted against the measure.
Crockett said he was outraged over parliamentary procedures the Democrats used to stall the finality of the veto override vote June 19, after they saw they didn’t have the votes to prevail.
Other Republicans also complained that the move to table the vote by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, was “Chicago-styled” politics and a play out of President Barack Obama’s playbook.
One, Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, even shouted from the floor to ensure roll call was kept open long enough by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick, so all representatives — some literally running into the chamber of the House — could get to their seats in time to vote.
Wilson later said he was shocked and disappointed over what he saw as Eves’ attempt to hurry the process in hopes some Republicans would miss the vote.
“Honestly, I held my vote because there were members including my own leadership that hadn’t voted yet,” Wilson said. “I don’t think he gave more than 20 seconds.”
But unlike Crockett, Wilson, who also supported the bill — largely favored by Democrats — on three prior occasions stuck with his yes vote on Medicaid expansion and ultimately voted in favor of the override.
Three other Republicans stood by their vote: Rep. Donald Marean, R-Hollis, Rep. Crol McElwee, R-Caribou, and Rep. Tom Tyler, R-Windham.
Wilson said he believed the measure was the most important bill going before the House this year and felt strongly that regardless of where any one member was on the bill they deserved a chance to vote. But, he said, he wasn’t about to change his vote either.
“I believe it’s not right to ever send a mixed signal,” Wilson said. “And while I was quite dissatisfied and I think that was pretty obvious I just didn’t want there to be any confusion about where I stood on the issue.”
Crockett said he too supported the bill and supported overriding LePage’s veto but was so outraged by what he called the “shady politics” of the way Eves was running the vote that he protested that by voting to sustain the veto on the final roll call. The override ultimately failed by two votes.
“What [Eves] tried to do,” Crockett said, “he basically was waiting until the numbers had dwindled to the point when he lost the first time around he was trying to get a second bite at the apple by hoping that people went home or weren’t in their seats.”
“The process is more important than the outcome,” Crockett said Friday.
Crockett also continued to express dismay that his GOP colleagues banded together with the governor to reject what would have been an infusion of about $900 million to the state from the federal government.
At least one lawmaker who supported the expansion in early votes, Rep. Tom Tyler, R-Windham, was absent on the first veto override vote but was there for the second to vote with Democrats, canceling out Crockett’s second no vote.
Both Wilson and Crockett said they were lobbied heavily from all sides on the issue and described the defeat of the expansion of Medicaid as one of the most important issues for Republicans in the Legislature this session.
At one point after the second veto vote, the House Assistant Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, exclaimed, “Well, that dragon has been slayed.”
Other bills that received broad bipartisan support also saw large numbers of Republicans switching sides after LePage vetoed the bill.
LePage, who issued 10 more vetoes Friday, has rejected more than 35 pieces of legislation this session. With legislative votes on many pending until Wednesday, none have been overridden by two-thirds votes in both chambers. It’s the second largest number of vetoes since Gov. James Longley, an independent, vetoed 49 bills in 1975.
One bill, LD 1044, would have provided a so-called “affirmative defense” for people who reported drug overdoses. Many witnesses to drug overdoses in Maine are also using drugs and the bill would have provided them with the possibility of immunity if they quickly reported an overdose. Supporters of the bill said it would save lives.
The bill was voted out of both the Senate and the House on unanimous voice votes, or went “under the hammer” — without a roll-call vote — as is usually the case with controversial bills.
But when the bill was vetoed and came back to the Senate, 14 Republicans voted to sustain LePage’s veto, effectively killing the bill.
One Republican senator, Roger Katz of Augusta, maintained his support of the bill and also sided with Democrats to overturn the governor’s veto. Katz said Friday the vote was particularly important to him because the weekend before the vote there were three heroin overdoses in Augusta.
Katz said the flipping of votes isn’t necessarily that uncommon. While he stopped short of defending the practice, he said there was no caucuswide directive to support LePage regardless.
“I think there’s a natural inclination for people to want to support their governor,” Katz said. “I think that’s true for Democrats as well as Republicans.”
He also said a number of the bills that went out on unanimous votes were bills that would have directly affected resources within various departments of state government by ordering them to study things.
He said LePage ultimately served as a check in that process and used his veto to conserve resources for higher priorities in times of tight budgets.
“Those departments just don’t have the in-house resources to just drop everything and study things and report back to the Legislature without dropping other important things they are already doing,” Katz said. “So before you start loading departments with more work, consider giving them additional resources.”
He said those type of mandates, without funding, “are fundamentally unfair.”
David Sorensen, the spokesman for House Republicans, agreed that often lawmakers simply changed their minds as new information came forward. He also said the House Republican caucus was under no directive to stand with LePage.
“There rarely is any caucus directive; our members are very independent,” Sorensen said.
He said if Democrats tried to paint an image of lawmakers flipping on their votes there are also ample examples, including a recent House vote to override a LePage veto where they stood their ground and sided with Democrats.
“It’s not a matter of simply sticking with the governor, it’s a matter [receiving] new information from the executive branch that sways the caucus,” he said.
Sorensen also points to at least two veto overrides for which Republicans joined Democrats as more evidence there wasn’t a party position to support LePage blindly.
Still Democrats said they remain, “mystified” by a number of votes that looked solid going out of the Legislature only to flip on the veto, said Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves.
The next big vote facing lawmakers will likely be whether to override a veto of a legislative budget bill, that also passed with two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate.
“We believe we can avoid a government shutdown or a massive shift of taxes to property taxpayers statewide if Republicans just stand by their votes,” Quintero said. “That’s all they have to do is stand by their votes.”
Wilson supported the Legislature’s budget and said Friday he intends to maintain his support for it and will vote in favor of overriding a veto.
Katz, likewise, said he believed if the House, which will get the budget veto first, overrides LePage the Senate will follow suit.
“A number of senators have expressed their intention to support the work of the Appropriations Committee,” Katz said.
The Legislature will reconvene on Wednesday, June 26, to take up any remaining vetoes sent from LePage’s office including a budget veto, which as of Friday had not been issued.