With help from 12 Republican senators, Gov. Paul LePage won his first veto skirmish Wednesday with the Democrat-led Legislature. LePage achieved a political victory when those 12 GOP senators voted to sustain the governor’s first veto of this legislative session, leaving the Senate one vote short of the two-thirds majority required for an override. Earlier Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly had voted to override the veto.
Democratic legislative leaders weren’t the only losers. Open government, fair treatment for constituent concerns and the notion that lawmakers should place service to those who elect them before party loyalty also suffered.
LePage, who has used a veto threat to pressure Democratic legislative leaders to expedite his plan to repay Maine’s Medicaid debt to the state’s 39 hospitals, chose LD 49 as the first target of his veto pen. It was a poor choice.
Unlike LD 272, the bill to ban the use of tanning beds by people younger than 18, which LePage vetoed Thursday, LD 49 did not engender partisan or ideological debate. It sailed through a committee hearing, work session and floor votes without opposition. Republicans and Democrats co-sponsored the legislation, which Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, introduced on behalf of the Maine Registers of Deeds Association.
In legislative committee testimony, Penobscot County Register of Deeds Susan Bulay described LD 49 as “a housekeeping bill to align the statute with current practice and the technology that our customers are requesting.” The bill aimed to “make the law follow what we are already doing” in processing and accounting for payments associated with electronic deed transfers.
Pragmatically, the bill proposed using what works in practice to adapt government rules, which is exactly the businesslike approach LePage advocates.
Nevertheless, the governor vetoed the bill, expressing concern that the Legislature passed a bill to “clarify how government takes money from its citizens” before taking action on “those that deal with major issues facing our state.”
When 12 Republican senators voted against overriding the bill Wednesday, LD 49 became the first piece of legislation to be sacrificed to the political power struggles in the State House over Maine’s hospital debt.
Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport said the senators voted against overriding the veto because “it was important to support Gov. LePage.” That’s not the job they were elected to do. Legislators’ first responsibility should be to their constituents, not to the governor, even if he shares similar political goals and principles.
Republicans in the Maine House of Representative acknowledged their responsibility by basing their votes to override the veto on the merits of the bill. In comments from the floor, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport set an admirable tone by urging legislators from both parties “to work and communicate with each other and the chief executive, working to get the important work done for the people of the state of Maine.”
Without offering any other public justification than loyalty to LePage, 12 Senate Republicans made that task harder Wednesday.
Enacting LD 49 should have been routine work for lawmakers, but instead it became a partisan sacrifice, a victory of politics over good policy making. Sacrificing other simple bills that pass with equally strong bipartisan support in an effort to force action on more contentious issues — including a final plan to repay the hospital debt — will make it more difficult to act on those major issues and further erode Mainers’ confidence in state government.