AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday night easily overturned $60 million worth of line-item budget vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage, who had pledged to gum up the works in the Legislature as lawmakers attempt to finish their work for the year.
LePage delivered a copy of the nearly 700-page, $6.7 billion budget to the Legislature on Thursday morning. Scattered throughout, he had handwritten 64 line-item vetoes, including spending on education, health care and job training. Each of those spending changes can be overridden by a simple majority in each chamber, and all but two must be voted on twice — once for each year in the two-year budget.
Given the Democratic majority in the House, the veto overrides were all but guaranteed in that chamber. Still, lawmakers and observers in the State House had feared lengthy debates and roll call votes on each line-item veto, but members of the House largely kept quiet Thursday night in an effort to keep things moving.
Representatives, who began their voting spree around 8 p.m., blazed through all the vetoes before 11 p.m., overriding each one easily with bipartisan support. When all the vetoes had been overturned, lawmakers gave a standing ovation.
The Senate will consider all the vetoes on Friday. After the line-items are returned, LePage will still have the option to veto the entire budget bill, which covers the next two fiscal years.
A budget must be in place by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, kept each vote open just long enough for a majority of members to indicate their desire to override. Most votes were complete in fewer than 30 seconds — a breakneck speed for the Legislature. Things moved so quickly that one lawmaker asked Eves to pump the brakes.
“I can’t keep up,” Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said.
Eves allowed a few minutes break, before picking back up where he started. Timberlake, who prides himself on his reluctance to approve government spending, joked that he’d only shut the government down for three and a half minutes.
The governor’s vetoes added 252 additional time-consuming votes to an already backed-up legislative calendar, where dozens of bills awaiting final disposition. The Legislature was scheduled to end its regular work Wednesday, but has voted to extend the session by one week. Assuming all lawmakers and session staff are present, each additional week the Legislature is in session will cost the state roughly $100,000.
After the Legislature passed its budget early Wednesday morning, the governor pledged to “waste a little of [lawmakers’] time” with his line-item vetoes.
And to a certain extent, he succeeded: Legislative staff spent the bulk of Thursday — the first day after the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn — compiling the vetoes for votes in the House.
Normally, vetoes are presented by the governor in such a manner that can be immediately considered by the chamber in which the legislation originated. But given the lack of such form in this case, it took the entire staff of the clerk’s office most of the day to prepare for the votes.
The line-item vetoes included a $30 million cut in general purpose funding for Maine’s K-12 schools over the next two years, as well as more than $4 million in cuts for food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income.
LePage also nixed $1 million in funding for health centers for rural or underserved populations; more than $950,000 in funding for Maine’s drug courts, a rehabilitation program; $500,000 for a Maine Department of Transportation study of passenger rail expansion; and more than $55,000 for meals on wheels, among other cuts.
The governor said he did not necessarily oppose all the spending he vetoed, but he opposed the secretive nature of the budget deal crafted by the four party leaders in the Legislature — a process he criticized for lacking transparency.
“Mainers want a budget that can be used used as blueprint for prosperity for our great state,” LePage wrote in an accompanying letter. “Instead, legislators delayed the process for five months, then presented a business-as-usual budget patched together at the last minute. Secretive, late-night decisions made under the cover of darkness and behind locked doors have led to a budget based on the best intentions of a handful of politicians, not what is best for all the people of Maine.”
Eves commended lawmakers for their patience and grace under fire. .
“I think they understand they’ve been elected to do a job no matter the circumstances that come to them. And that’s what we’re doing tonight,” Eves said in an interview before the veto override spree. .
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said that while they were time consuming, the vetoes were important for giving some of his members an opportunity to voice their opposition to what they described as government bloat.
“The line-item vetoes certainly provide an opportunity for lawmakers to express concern about the amount of spending there exists in the budget,” Fredette said. “To the extent that people want to stand up and support or oppose any cut, they have the option to do that. We have a responsibility to see that it’s done.”
The line-item vetoes are the latest example of LePage attempting to stymie lawmakers this year.
Earlier in the session, he pledged to veto all Democrat-sponsored bills in retaliation for the party’s opposition to his efforts to eliminate the income tax with a constitutional effort. Democrats said the plan was irresponsible because LePage had no proposal for making up for the sudden loss of nearly half the state’s revenue.
In an interview with MPBN’s Mal Leary on Thursday, LePage said his veto threat now extended to Republicans as well. In other words, he now says he’ll veto every single bill, regardless of its content or sponsor. If he follows through, that means all bills will require two-thirds support in both chambers — the threshold for overriding a veto.
“I need to find a way to get the most representation that I can for the people of the state of Maine, and the only way I can do that is get two-thirds vote on every bill,” LePage told Leary. “The Democrats have convinced the Republicans to sponsor bills for them. So now it’s all bills.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.