The Legislature has one final opportunity to assert its authority as an equal partner in state government when lawmakers return to Augusta on Tuesday to tackle Gov. Paul LePage’s latest batch of vetoes.
With validation from Republican legislators, who have voted to sustain all but three of LePage’s more than 50 vetoes this session, the State House balance of power has tipped noticeably toward the executive branch. Good bills, many of them initiated by constituents and all of them passed by legislative majorities, died this session — victims of LePage’s veto pen and Republican lawmakers’ unwillingness to break ranks with a governor from their party.
It should not take the threat of a government shutdown to motivate Republican lawmakers to buck LePage by opposing vetoes of legislation they endorsed, sometimes unanimously, in the first place. The frequency with which Republican lawmakers have reversed their original positions on bills that they supported and then helped kill by upholding vetoes raises questions about their engagement in the legislative process.
Does party loyalty matter more than independent judgments on proposed legislation? Does LePage exert more influence over them than constituents? Or does the benefit of a second look at legislation afforded by vetoes help them better understand the implications?
If the latter is the case, as some Republican legislators have argued, then they have at least two opportunities to reverse their positions in a way that will save worthwhile pieces of legislation.
LePage’s disdain for public campaign financing is well-established, so it’s not surprising that he vetoed LD 1543, a resolve recommended by the Maine Ethics Commission as a way to clarify restrictions on how candidates can use Maine Clean Election Act funds to thank supporters. The legislation sought to tighten language about thank-yous and prevent primary candidates from spending money on post-election parties or gifts.
In his veto letter, LePage objected to the fact that the resolve would allow public campaign funds to be used for parties after a general election. The problem is, the veto will not prevent parties from happening. Instead, it just blocks the implementation of common-sense changes proposed by the Ethics Commission based on its review of past circumstances and spending reports.
To eliminate the use of public funds for post-election parties, lawmakers could introduce a resolve instructing the commission to amend its rules to ban the use of Maine Clean Election Act funds for parties. In the meantime, GOP legislators could at least take a step in that direction by joining their Democratic colleagues in overriding the veto of a bill that would prohibit the use of public funds for post-primary parties and thank-you gifts.
A second bill vetoed by LePage, LD 1232, An Act to Maintain the Integrity of the Fund for a Healthy Maine, also merits reconsideration by Republicans who voted against it. Recognizing that using Maine’s share of a national tobacco settlement for preventive and educational program represents a cost-effective investment in public health, the bill — without any impact on the current two-year budget — aims to halt the recent practice of dipping into the Fund for a Healthy Maine to fill revenue gaps or pay general expenses.
In opposing Maine’s participation in an expansion of Medicaid eligibility allowed under the Affordable Care Act, Republicans touted the need to contain health care costs. By funding smoking-cessation programs, school health coordinators and similar preventive care measures, the Fund for a Health Maine has done so for more than a decade.
Likewise, Republican legislators cited the need to honor commitments to Maine hospitals when advocating for the state to repay its remaining Medicaid debt to those institutions. State government made a similar commitment to preventive health when the Fund for a Healthy Maine was created in 1999.
Voting against a bill that maintains the integrity of a program that helps reduce the human and financial costs of known public health hazards such as smoking and obesity would seem contrary to Republican principles.
Adding their votes to the two-thirds majorities necessary for overrides of these two vetoes would demonstrate that Republican lawmakers have the courage to buck LePage and the wisdom to recognize legislation that cuts across party lines to benefit all Mainers.