AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican leaders in the Maine House and Senate said late Tuesday that despite pressure from Democrats and others they will not reconvene this week to vote on two line-item vetoes issued by Gov. Paul LePage.
For the first time in Maine’s history, LePage decided on Saturday to eliminate two lines of funding from the 2012-13 supplemental budget, which passed through the Legislature on Friday.
• Funding an estimated $8 million shortfall in the general assistance program for the 2013 fiscal year.
• More than $3 million in “disproportionate share” funding to hospitals and psychiatric facilities to offset losses in federal funding.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco and House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono said it is lawmakers’ “constitutional obligation to convene to address the governor’s veto.”
“Failing to … will be an abrogation of our constitutional responsibilities and an erosion of the doctrine of separation of powers,” Cain and Hobbins wrote in a letter to House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
In a response letter, Raye and Nutting disagreed.
“Two-thirds of [Republicans] have declined to consent to convening the Legislature,” they wrote. “Inasmuch as we do not have the consent of a majority of members of both parties, the Legislature will not convene this week.
“However, as the [fiscal year] 2013 supplemental budget will be considered in May, the Legislature will have an opportunity at that point to weigh the issues addressed by the Governor’s line-item veto. In light of that, convening the Legislature this week would be an unnecessary exercise and expense.”
Pressure for lawmakers to overturn the governor’s vetoes wasn’t just coming from Democrats on Tuesday.
Bangor City Council Chairman Cary Weston, a Republican and a LePage supporter, said he agrees with the governor about restructuring the general assistance program.
“But passing the buck to municipalities is not the way to change the program,” he said.
Bangor is one of the handful of Maine communities that would be most affected by the general assistance cuts favored by the LePage. Weston said that if the governor’s veto is sustained, the city would lose more than $1 million in general assistance reimbursement, or about $1 on the city’s tax rate if an equivalent amount of spending is not reduced.
Line-item vetoes are possible in Maine because of a constitutional amendment that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1995. The amendment gives the governor the ability to strike specific dollar amounts from any budget with a provision that the Legislature can override with a majority vote.
Since it passed, Maine has had three governors, but until Saturday the executive line-item veto power had never been used.
The Legislature is now technically in recess until May 15. That’s when lawmakers need to come back to settle a second supplemental budget addressing an estimated $85 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services.
To reconvene earlier than that date, the Legislature must either be called back by the governor for an “extraordinary occasion” or with the consent of a majority of the members of each political party after being polled.
Democrats were all but united.
Republicans? Not so much.
Even before the House and Senate voted last week, LePage said he would not sign the budget. He also said in a radio interview on Monday that if the Legislature overrides his line-item vetoes, he would veto the entire budget. Unlike line-item vetoes, which need only a simple majority to override, a traditional veto needs a two-thirds majority.
During the same interview, LePage also threatened to keep the Legislature in session until he gets a balanced budget “without gimmicks.”
The budget that passed last Friday is a balanced budget — as is required by the state Constitution — and passed 105-30 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate.
Saturday’s action by LePage was a clear line in the sand.
“I am looking at a way to sustain our welfare programs,” he said. “This budget keeps Maine on the same path it’s been on for 40 years and I will not be held hostage and forced to sign a budget that is irresponsible.”
LePage has pushed for structural changes to a number of assistance and entitlement programs since he has taken office. In some cases, he has been successful. In others, lawmakers have determined that his cuts are too extreme.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said he believes LePage truly believes that the state’s welfare system is broken and that the level of benefits being provided saps an individual’s will to succeed.
He also said LePage could be expending significant political capital by using his line-item veto power. By issuing the line-item vetoes, the governor essentially is telling 140 lawmakers that they are wrong and he’s right, according to Brewer.
In his veto letter, LePage even called out lawmakers by saying, “We need a profile in courage in Augusta. It’s why we all took that solemn oath and that is why I ask each and every one of you for your support on these vetoes.”
Some, even those in his own party, may not like his choice of words, although clearly not enough to rush to overturn the vetoes.
“Right now, he’s not building a lot of good will among Republicans in the Legislature, who frankly have given him a lot of what he asked for,” Brewer said. “The one thing I wonder whether the governor understands is: In government, there is no CEO. These are equal branches.”
Although it wasn’t what LePage wanted, lawmakers did make minor reductions in the budget to general assistance by reducing the reimbursement rate to service center municipalities from 90 percent to 85 percent and by capping housing assistance at nine months, with some exceptions.
The budget also creates a task force of Department of Health and Human Services members and stakeholders that will come up with ways to make the program more cost-effective in the years ahead.
Weston said Bangor officials were looking forward to studying general assistance into the summer and fall months.
He also noted that the rise in general assistance payouts by municipalities has coincided with a significant backlog of Social Security disability applications. That process can take anywhere from six to 18 months and, while they’re waiting, many low-income Mainers have nowhere else to turn but general assistance.
Ultimately the supplemental budget passed by the Legislature funds a $4 million general assistance shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year and funds all but $1.7 million of an estimated $8 million shortfall in 2013.
House members and senators now have to come back and face the issue.
“If I were a Republican, I’d be livid because instead of being out there on the campaign trail talking about accomplishments, you have to deal with this,” Brewer said. “I think LePage comes out looking good because he has a talking point no matter what happens. But, for the Republican party as a whole, it’s lose-lose.”
Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.