April 25, 2018
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Are Republican legislators trying to distance themselves from Gov. LePage?

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s agenda has taken somewhat of a beating in recent days when the Legislature voted to override two of his vetoes and took lopsided votes on a bill that would restore $40 million in revenue sharing to Maine municipalities.

With Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, which means Democrats can push through or kill just about any bill with a simple majority vote, the veto is LePage’s strongest tool in advocating for his vision for Maine. If enough Republicans continue to break from their party on high-profile issues to make two-thirds veto overrides possible, what does that mean for the remaining nine months of LePage’s first term, and how could it affect his re-election bid?

Ronald Schmidt, an assistant political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the votes show fractures within the Republican party and that some in the GOP may be trying to distance themselves from the governor.

“It does raise the question of how representative Gov. LePage is of the Maine Republican Party,” said Schmidt. “It’s always been a question to me whether or not his rise had more to do with the more energized, conservative part of the GOP versus other parts that weren’t as energized. … If my assumption is wrong, then it does suggest that we could see a lot of energy behind his candidacy in the gubernatorial race.”

Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, acknowledged that the GOP is split on many issues, but argued that it has more to do with diversity within the party than dissatisfaction with LePage.

“I don’t look at these votes as related to electoral politics,” said Bennett. “It doesn’t say anything about our chances in November. In my opinion, having served in the Legislature, Republicans are a pretty diverse group on a variety of policy matters. They’re free-thinking, independent-minded people.”

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the recent votes show that some Republicans are trying to distance themselves from the governor in advance of the election.

“I would expect to see more and more of this as the Republicans in the Legislature get closer to having to face the voters,” he said. “They’re not going to want to be on LePage’s side. They’re going to want to be on the side of the voters and as we get closer to Election Day, we’ll see [LePage’s] power wane.”

On vetoes, LePage has enjoyed a high percentage of success. Of the 88 bills he’s vetoed during the current legislative session, only seven have been overturned.

The most recent example of LePage’s will being trumped by the Legislature involved LD 1353, a bill sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, that calls on local school districts where at least 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches to vote on whether to institute summer lunch programs. It took only a handful of Republicans in both the House and Senate to override the veto.

Last month, the Legislature voted 131-10 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate to override a LePage veto on a bill, LD 386, that requires the state’s Medicaid program to fully fund tobacco cessation programs.

Another bill vetoed by LePage, LD 1254, a Democratic bill that called for increased consumption of Maine-produced foods in government institutions, was brought back to life in the House but killed by a 20-13 vote in the Senate that sustained the veto.

But perhaps most stunning diversion from LePage’s agenda was overwhelming passage of a Democrat-led bill this month, LD 1762, which would use funds from the rainy day fund and other sources to restore $40 million in revenue sharing to Maine municipalities. The final votes on the measure passed 120-17 in the House and without a roll call in the Senate.

LePage has favored reductions in revenue sharing, which constitutes a portion of state revenues that for decades has cascaded to municipalities, since he proposed cutting it in his biennial budget bill in early 2013. LePage has gone back and forth in recent days on whether he’ll veto LD 1762, despite the veto-proof majorities it garnered in the Legislature.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the revenue-sharing bill was brought to the Legislature before it was “ready for prime time,” and therefore put Republicans, most of whom sympathize with the financial plights of their local governments, in a difficult position.

“It put us in a political situation where we all care about our local communities,” said Fredette, who voted to enact the bill. “It wasn’t the right vehicle to be where we wanted to be, but we wanted to be supportive of our communities.”

Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler, said neither party is immune to criticism.

“The inability to collaborate is coming back to haunt the governor,” said Canney. “Democrats, however, are making decisions around revenue sharing, which we need to restore, without having Republicans in the room. This is exactly the problem, partisanship. Maine people expect better.”

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s senior political consultant, said the idea that LePage’s power is compromised when the Legislature doesn’t agree with him is a “red herring” and that his real power is in using his office and the executive branch to benefit Maine people.

“Just this week he is using his team to help put people back to work in East Millinocket, in this example working across the aisle with Democrats to get something done. … The ins and outs of vetoes are fodder for Ben Grant, Ethan Strimling, Dirigo Blue and Democratic party staffers who are obsessed with Augusta,” wrote Littlefield in response to emailed questions from the BDN.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the number of LePage’s sustained vetoes isn’t what’s important.

“Gov. LePage focuses on the merits and policy implications of the legislation he reviews,” said Bennett. “He does not bend to political pressure, nor does he apply pressure, to get a certain outcome. … Democrats are trying to score political points by claiming these overrides are a sign of weakness between the governor and Republicans. That is not the case.”

One issue the GOP has stood relatively firm on is welfare reform, which is shaping up to be at the center of their message for the upcoming election. Charlie Webster, former chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he sees that message gaining more traction in Maine, particularly among working-class, rural voters. He said that if Democrats and some Republicans manage to push through Medicaid expansion under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, it could backfire on them politically.

“Blue-collar workers are particularly upset that we’ve become a welfare state,” said Webster. “Democrats are on the wrong side of this issue and have adopted a version of socialism. … The people they’re talking to are not the right people. The average guy out there who’s trying to buy oil and feed his family is not supportive of an expansion of welfare.”

Webster said he expects a wave of Republican victories this November in Maine and across the country because of the Democrats’ relentless pushing of the Affordable Care Act.

Grant acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act has been embattled in recent months but believes it will show its worth in the long term.

“The ACA is going to end up being a positive,” he said. “I’m happy the election wasn’t last month, but what we’re seeing is it’s up off the ground and on its feet. It will substantially help people access affordable health care.”

Schmidt said he suspects that few if any of these issues are registering with voters as relevant to the campaign, but that is likely to change.

“I don’t think voters are paying attention to the level they will be in a few months,” he said.

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