AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is considering a special, pre-election session of the Legislature this fall to propose an initiative that he says will “push the envelope” and further polarize Democrats against him.
But the governor isn’t divulging much about his plans, leading Democrats to criticize him for a lack of transparency and a partisan approach to governing, and leaving members of both parties around the State House wondering exactly what he has in mind.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, confirmed Thursday that LePage is considering a special session this fall, but refused to say why.
“There is still further analysis to be done,” she said. “Therefore, it would be premature to share information about the substance or nature of why a special session is being considered.”
The confirmation from Bennett came the morning after LePage told a Bangor Republican Committee gathering of his plans to “interfere” with pre-election campaigning and summon lawmakers back to Augusta “in the near future.” But first, he said, he’s checking with the state attorney general’s office to see if what he has in mind and the special session are allowed by Maine’s state constitution.
“I’m just trying to do what other Republican states have done this year, and I’ve got to wait before I say too much more about it,” LePage said in a recording obtained by Bangor Daily News blogger Mike Tipping. “But what I’m telling you is this: If we get this done, the state of Maine will be on the right track for the next 10 years. I promise you that.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General William Schneider’s office didn’t immediately confirm the governor had consulted the office about his proposal.
Article V of the Maine Constitution allows a governor to call a special legislative session “on extraordinary occasions.” And legislative Democrats on Thursday pointed out that a special session costs the state about $35,000 a day.
Assistant Senate Democratic leader Justin Alfond of Portland said he couldn’t think of an issue that rises to the “extraordinary occasions” level.
“We as a state have just closed our fiscal year. We have money after our fiscal year is closed,” he said. “There’s a threshold in order to call a special session for a reason.”
Alfond of Portland and House Democratic leader Emily Cain of Orono called on LePage to make his plans public.
“The governor, when he came into power, said that his administration would be the most transparent administration the state has ever seen,” Alfond said. “Last night’s discussion with donors, Republican strategists and activists again illustrates how Gov. LePage is governing through secrecy, through fear and only representing a small portion of the state of Maine.”
Cain also criticized LePage for using a “blatant partisan tone” in his Wednesday remarks.
“We’ve done some work together,” she said. “It’s discouraging to me that the governor would lead with something very partisan. I certainly don’t think this is the way you build credibility for the need for a special session.”
Republicans knew just as little as Democrats about the governor’s plans Thursday.
Jim Cyr, spokesman for House Speaker Robert Nutting said, “There’s been no communication between the governor’s office and the speaker’s office on this. He doesn’t know what the governor has in mind.”
Senate President Kevin Raye said he hadn’t heard anything about a special legislative session this fall before hearing LePage’s comments.
“The governor has the right to call the Legislature back in,” he said in a statement emailed to reporters. “However, since he has not yet presented a proposal, it would be premature to pass judgment on the value of a special session.”
Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport, who is chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, attended Wednesday night’s GOP event and said LePage’s remarks were news to everybody there.
“It may not be even that definitive,” he said. “I think it’s very speculative at this point.”
It’s unclear when LePage might schedule a special session, but the Senate will be in session on Sept. 6 for confirmation votes on a number of gubernatorial appointments.
While LePage’s plans are unknown, the states with Republican governors he presumably referenced have in recent years attempted measures to limit unions’ collective bargaining rights, eliminate teacher tenure and require that voters show photo identification at the polls.
If LePage targets collective bargaining rights, he can count on major resistance from the state’s unions and a repeal effort if his initiative passes legislative muster, said Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association.
“Right before an election, to come after collective bargaining rights would be a major mistake for the governor,” he said. “Mainers overwhelmingly support collective bargaining rights.”
And Quint isn’t sure the Republican majorities in the House and Senate would go along with a proposal that chips away at collective bargaining rights. A “right-to-work” bill — which targeted public employee unions’ rights to collect fees from nonmembers who benefit from the unions’ representation — failed in the Legislature last year.
Another proposal from legislative Republicans to require that voters show photo identification at the polls was unsuccessful last year. Instead, the bill turned into a study of the state’s election system. The study group is holding a public hearing in Augusta on Aug. 23 to gather ideas for potential legislation to modify the voting system.
On teacher tenure, Maine law doesn’t technically provide for it, but LePage has been critical of the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. In May, he blasted the union for taking a position on November’s same-sex marriage referendum and not focusing enough on making sure Maine teachers receive high-quality professional development.
Maine lawmakers this past spring also passed a LePage bill that requires school districts adopt teacher evaluation systems and allows districts not to renew the contracts of teachers rated ineffective two years in a row.
LePage has also been an outspoken advocate of scaling back Medicaid and other state welfare programs.
His administration is awaiting the decision of federal officials on whether Maine can go ahead with about $20 million in Medicaid cuts that will affect coverage for low-income 19- and 20-year-olds, low-income parents and some elderly patients who depend on a prescription drug benefit provided through Medicaid.