AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee voted unanimously late Thursday to kill a pair of bills that Republican Gov. Paul LePage proposed in the final days of the 126th Legislature’s second session.
The decision came after the committee received word from LePage, just as it was preparing to move the measures to the full Legislature — that he would veto the bills if lawmakers passed them as they had been amended.
One of the bills offered by LePage sought to move about $5 million in funds from an account meant to improve health in Maine communities to help struggling nursing homes.
The other measure sought to add 10 new agents to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as two new drug court judges and two drug crime prosecutors to the Maine attorney general’s office.
LePage had introduced the bills just two days earlier, and lawmakers said that while they worked for at least five hours on the measures, they were unable to reach compromises among majority Democrats, minority Republicans and LePage.
Lawmakers in both parties blamed their rivals for failing to compromise, but some also said the late introduction of the bills simply did not allow the Legislature the time it needed to work through the proposed legislation in a meaningful way.
“It’s become abundantly clear what happens when we get bills at the last minute and we don’t have time to work them,” state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said. “It’s been very frustrating for us today to have these two bills come in at the last minute and we have not had the time to do what we normally do, and that is to work them and come out with unanimous bipartisan reports.”
Rotundo said Republican and Democratic legislative leaders asked the Appropriations Committee, which she co-chairs, to vote down both bills. The decision came after lawmakers had spent much of the day taking override votes on 48 LePage vetoes of other bills that had been passed by the Legislature during this lawmaking session, which started in January.
Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the lead Senate Republican on the Appropriations Committee, quipped that at least the committee was able to maintain its tradition of unanimous votes.
“Folks, these are strange things to happen on the last day of session,” Flood said. “The whole building is waiting for us to get our work done and it’s kind of tragic it’s come to this.”
Flood said he was grateful that the committee had at least gotten word from the governor’s office that, “there’s a destiny that’s probably not a good one.”
In a news release issued after the two LePage bills died, Republican Senate leadership said Democrats were “putting politics over Maine’s elderly residents” and “quashed an effort to provide critical funding to Maine nursing homes, some of which are in imminent danger of closing.”
While Republicans wanted to use $5 million from the state’s Tobacco Settlement Fund, which is filled with revenue from multi-state lawsuit settlement with big tobacco — Democrats suggested using $2 million from the state’s general fund balance.
“This is truly a missed opportunity for our elderly. The pet projects the Democrats wanted to spend the $5 million on are already adequately funded by the Department of Health and Human Services,” state Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, said in a prepared statement. “But the Democrats want to dump more money into them when those funds could be used to meet a critical need for our nursing homes. That’s been the most baffling part of this process.”
Democrats have said the tobacco settlement funds should go to prevention and education programs designed to reduce cancer and other risks associated with smoking. They said LePage’s “11th-hour hi-jinks” caused the bills to fail.
“It should be no surprise that Gov. LePage to the very end would obstruct the hard work done in the Legislature,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said — also in a prepared statement. “Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle tried to make this happen. We tried to do this but no matter what good ideas were brought forward, the governor refused to compromise. It’s unfortunate that the governor did not take his job seriously enough to work with us. ”
Lawmakers decided to “pull the plug” on further negotiations, according to a release issued by Democrats.
“Once Democrats and Republicans found a compromise on the bill to address the drug crisis and agreed to fund nursing homes, the governor couldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer,” House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said. “At midnight on the final hour of veto day, we have all grown tired of his ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Republicans and Democrats agreed to not move forward with bills he would veto.”
On Thursday, lawmakers overrode 15 of the 48 vetoes issued by LePage before officially adjourning at 12:36 a.m. Friday. Majority Democrats said they do not expect this Legislature to return.
The next Legislature is not expected to begin its official work until December.