AUGUSTA, Maine — The unity that Maine Republicans touted at last week’s convention splintered a bit Thursday, when GOP lawmakers joined Democrats in overriding 15 of Gov. Paul LePage’s vetoes.
With GOP lawmakers’ support, LePage won key victories when his latest two vetoes of Medicaid expansion — along with more than 30 other bills — were sustained. But he also suffered significant political losses Thursday after enough GOP lawmakers sided with Democrats to override his vetoes of a supplemental budget and teacher evaluation rules, along with more than a dozen other bills.
That marked a considerable change from last year, when lawmakers and the governor weren’t headed out of the State House and onto the campaign trail.
On the last day of the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers took up 29 LePage vetoes and supported all of them but two. On Thursday, there were 48 vetoes on the docket, 15 of which were overridden.
While enough lawmakers agreed with LePage to uphold 33 of the vetoes on Thursday, there’s no question that support from his own party is eroding, a notion upheld by several Republicans in interviews with the Bangor Daily News on Thursday night.
“It used to be that when in doubt, support what the governor is trying to do,” said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, one of the more conservative members of the Republican caucus, who will be forced out of office by term limits after eight years in the Legislature. Johnson said he supports most of what LePage is trying to do policywise — reform education, lower taxes, shrink government — but not the governor’s “disruptive” methods.
“The administration didn’t help much on the [supplemental] budget and for a long time, several of his commissioners weren’t coming to our committee meetings to answer questions,” said Johnson. “That’s been kind of disappointing for me. … In this environment I want to get stuff done and get to work with people.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, a single-term lawmaker who is not running for re-election, agreed with Johnson about LePage’s ideology and said he and other Republicans have grown weary of what they see as LePage’s unwillingness to compromise or participate in the budget process.
“There are obviously times when vetoes are going to come, but traditionally these types of objections [by a governor] are brought forward before this point,” said Wilson late Thursday evening. “[The number of vetoes] is not just a product of bad legislation being brought forward. It’s about a failure of the executive branch to properly be involved in the issues. … We are one party and we do want to support our governor, but it’s important that he supports us as well.”
Another two vetoes likely were avoided late Thursday night when the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted unanimously against a pair of last-minute bills that LePage proposed late Wednesday afternoon. One attempted to revive a prior LePage-backed bill to hire investigators, judges and prosecutors to fight drug crimes. LePage proposed to pay for his drug enforcement bill with $2.5 million from the state’s unclaimed property fund.
The second aimed to provide more funding for nursing homes. LePage proposed using money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, a mix of racino and tobacco settlement funds that are intended for public health initiatives, for one-time support of nursing homes he said are in danger of closure in a matter of months.
The Legislature already enacted a supplemental budget bill that includes a provision to permanently increase funding to nursing homes through increase Medicaid reimbursement rates — but LePage has criticized that increase because he believes it will come too late to help struggling nursing homes.
The committee’s votes on the two bills came after hours of negotiations, while the entire Legislature waited late into Thursday night. The talks culminated in LePage’s office telling the committee he’d veto the bills if they were amended.
“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,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who is co-chairman of the committee.
In a written statement he circulated Friday morning, LePage blasted lawmakers for failing to enact the bills. He focused his ire at Democrats, despite the fact that all Republicans on the committee also voted against the bills. In the statement, LePage included home phone numbers for all of the committee members and urged “everyone” to call them to “tell them to do what’s right for elderly Mainers and to keep nursing homes open.”
“It is inconceivable that the Appropriations Committee, which is ruled by a Democrat majority, would rather pay for posters and PR campaigns for smoking cessation than fund nursing homes, which take care of elderly Mainers,” he said. “We found the revenue to keep nursing homes open and provide care for our most vulnerable citizens, but the Appropriations Committee chose to ignore our elderly. They talk about helping Maine people, but their actions reveal the height of their hypocrisy.”
LePage said he is looking for discretionary funds — money he can use under his authority as governor — to fund the two initiatives.
“We will do whatever we can to find up to $3.5 million to save these nursing homes,” said LePage. “The Legislature went home without doing its job, but I will keep doing mine. We must not fail our elderly.”
Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he suspected some of the votes against LePage’s vetoes were the result of the upcoming election and some lawmakers’ attempts to distance themselves from the governor, even though polls indicate that LePage’s support remains slightly above the 37.6 percent support he received in the five-way 2010 general election, according to recent polls.
“It’s an election year and I think moderate Republicans across the state have had enough of his leadership style,” said Evangelos. “He governs like he got 80 percent of the vote. He’s never accepted the fact that he never got a mandate from the voters.”
But there are some lawmakers who are grateful to LePage for stopping legislation that they say would have been harmful for the state.
“He’s a less-than-ideal communicator but at the end of the day I’ve been happy that we have him for our governor,” said Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta. “He’s been a backstop for bad legislation.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the veto overrides were the result of Republican lawmakers who had worked hard on bills advocating for their personal positions, though he said the caucus was solid on “important issues” such as rejecting Medicaid expansion, fending off gun control attempts, pushing for welfare reform and attempting to shrink government.
“For a year and a half I’ve been in leadership and I myself have attempted to work with the Democratic leadership and it’s been very difficult to work with them to forge compromises,” said Fredette. “I think the same could be said of Democratic leadership, that they’ve been obstructionist. They’ve wanted to make the governor look bad in an election year.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, disagreed and said the events that transpired Thursday in Augusta prove that LePage’s support in his own party is eroding.
“People are frustrated and tired of working with a governor who has an inability to compromise and find common ground,” said Eves. “I think this was a bad day for the governor.”
That said, Democrats can’t claim victory either, as sustained vetoes Thursday sank their fourth and fifth attempts to expand Medicaid — which they had identified as the session’s priority — and LePage prevailed more than twice as often as he lost on “Veto Day.”
LePage spokesman Peter Steele defended the governor in an emailed response to questions from the BDN.
“There is nothing obstructionist about trying to prevent bad policy from becoming law, halting unfunded mandates or stopping special-interest legislation that does not benefit the greater good,” wrote Steele. “Maine has suffered from 40 years of laws full of half measures, rooms stacked with useless studies and feel-good legislation that only nibbles around the edges of important issues. The governor is not a puppet to party bosses, lobbyists or special interests. He wants to do real work that benefits Maine families, the elderly, job creators and students, not just for the next election, but the next generation.”