Legislative leaders and Gov. Paul LePage have gotten themselves into a bad place. For fear of angering the governor, Republican lawmakers took a secret vote to uphold his veto of a couple of budget items. This has made them look weak. Rather than repeat this debacle in May, Republican leaders and the governor need to find a spending compromise that both can support.
Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously passed a supplemental budget. It passed the House by a lopsided 105-30 vote. A day later, Gov. LePage used the line-item veto — for the first time in its 17-year existence — to strike two items from the budget.
House and Senate rules say each chamber “shall act” on the line-item vetoes within five days. Republican leaders say they did act by asking their members if they wanted to return to Augusta. The majority said no.
When pressed, the Senate president’s office did provide the Bangor Daily News with a tally of which members said they were willing to come back to Augusta and which ones said no.
The speaker of the house declined to provide such a tally. Instead, in response to a Freedom of Access request from the Democratic Party, Speaker Bob Nutting put out a statement.
“My office used an anonymous poll, which is used frequently by both Republican and Democrat caucuses in other matters, such as electing caucus leaders,” he said in the statement.
But this wasn’t a caucus meeting, this was action required by the House rules regarding line-item vetoes. Legislative action can’t be done in secret.
Using “anonymous polls” to conduct legislative business is akin to a board of selectmen taking votes in executive session.
By declining to reconvene, Republican lawmakers allowed the governor’s vetoes on general assistance funding and money for psychiatric hospitals to stand. This makes the Republican leadership look weak. More so because they hid behind a nonpublic poll to let the veto go unchallenged despite the Legislature’s strong support for the spending plan.
The alternative was to make the governor look weak by overriding his veto.
Neither is a good outcome.
As for the Democrats, the events of recent days have given them reason to never trust their Republican counterparts. The general assistance funding that the governor struck from the budget was a hard-fought compromise. It took the members of the Appropriations Committee weeks to find language that was acceptable to all members of the panel. Once a compromise was reached, it was endorsed unanimously.
By not challenging the governor’s veto, Republicans have shown that such compromises — and the time and give-and-take that is needed to reach them — are wasted.
It all adds up to a toxic mix.
Republicans — because they control both houses and the governor’s office — must find a way out of this situation.
The Legislature resumes again in three weeks. The governor is still demanding big cuts to “welfare.” Republican leaders should look for ways to work with the governor to find reasonable common ground.
The alternative is another strong vote in support of a spending plan, only to be met with a veto. Lawmakers will then again have to decide — hopefully not in secret — whether to override it.
This is not a productive way to set policy or determine funding priorities.