November 18, 2018
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LePage’s veto doctrine: No patience for studies, feel-good bills and piecemeal change

Matthew Stone | BDN
Matthew Stone | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage signs a veto letter he delivered to the Legislature instantly in 2013 after the Senate gave final passage to a bill that links repayment of Maine's hospital debt with an expansion of Medicaid.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage long ago established that he’ll use the full breadth of his constitutional powers to advance the policy agenda he believes is best for Maine.

He has withheld voter-approved bonds, refused to nominate people for the Public Utilities Commission and Board of Corrections, and perhaps most noticeably, he issued more than 200 vetoes during his first four-and-a-half years as governor. As has been well reported, that is far more vetoes than any other governor in Maine history.

However, in the first 18 vetoes since his re-election, LePage has established another truth: there are certain kinds of bills that he’ll veto every time. Here’s a look at patterns that are emerging — or in this case, re-emerging.

LePage, for the most part, does not support studies. Aside from probably the most infamous taxpayer-funded study in Maine history — the Alexander Report, which LePage scuttled after revelations about plagiarism in its early phases — numerous studies have fallen victim to LePage’s veto pen. They have ranged from one on workplace bullying to another on whether Mainers are paying their fair share of taxes on items purchased online.

The pattern continued earlier this month when LePage vetoed LD 435, which would have continued a study of ways to reduce the threat of invasive green crabs to shellfish and lobsters. It’s a concept LePage personally supported last year and which garnered unanimous legislative support this year. However, LePage’s veto was upheld with a 16-19 vote in the Senate.

“Let’s react to the data, not simply continue to extend this pilot,” he wrote. “Now is the time to react to the information we have learned, not simply dither.”

A recurring theme throughout LePage’s veto letters on bills calling for studies involves his belief that if the Legislature wants a study, it should assign the work to legislative staff. A staunch defender of the executive branch’s authority and autonomy, LePage bristles at the notion that administrators or staff under his purview should undertake studies proposed by legislators. It’s part of his fervent and ongoing efforts to consolidate power in the governor’s office.

He has no appetite for ‘feel-good’ bills. Evidence of this can be found in LePage’s veto of LD 377, a bill that would clear the way for the state to provide low-interest loans to movie and television production companies that produce or shoot films in Maine. This is an issue that lawmakers have been trying to gain traction on for years. They have passed laws — including LD 377, unanimously — but have not attached any funding.

“This piece of legislation is simply a feel-good bill,” wrote LePage. “Either we fund it or get rid of it. Doing neither one makes no sense.”

Legislative action on LePage’s veto of this bill is pending.

If there are going to be changes to the tax code this year, they’ll be LePage’s. Though he did not mention his intention to do so during last year’s gubernatorial campaign, LePage has prioritized tax reform in his second term — but he has signaled he’ll support his own plan and no one else’s.

Last month, the governor vetoed one bill that would have exempted library collaboratives from sales and service provider taxes and another bill that would have reduced registration fees and excise taxes on for for-hire vehicles for people with disabilities. Both were sustained by the Legislature. Then last week, LePage submitted a supplemental budget bill that included nearly identical language from the two vetoed bills.

“As you know, the Legislature is currently considering a comprehensive budget proposal that addresses our overall tax system and doesn’t appear to have neared conclusion on those deliberations,” wrote LePage in his veto letter, referring to his own biennial budget proposal. “Therefore, I do not believe it would be appropriate to support targeted exemptions on an isolated basis before the Legislature has acted.”

If LePage’s tax reform goals aren’t supported by the Legislature — which is looking more likely as the end of the fiscal year nears — also going by the wayside will be the two bills LePage vetoed.

LePage vetoes bills from his own party. Though LePage has vetoed far more Democratic bills than Republican ones — which to some degree is the result of Democrats forcing “the election is coming” bills on him that they knew he would oppose in 2013 and 2014 — LePage has not hesitated to veto Republican bills. Four of the 18 bills LePage has vetoed this session were sponsored by Republicans.

LePage is using leverage from his convincing election win last year. Even though he did not make reducing or eliminating the state income tax a major campaign theme, LePage is acting like his win was a mandate to cut it.

“I do not believe it would be appropriate to support targeted exemptions on an isolated basis before the Legislature has acted comprehensively to address the issue of the sales tax and reduce the oppressive burden that the income tax has placed on families and businesses in Maine,” wrote LePage in two veto letters this year. “That is why the Maine people elected us and why I have vetoed this bill today.”

LePage has a scripted end to his vetoes. As if the reasoning within his letters is not enough, LePage ends the vast majority of his veto letters — if not all of them — with an identical phrase: “I strongly urge the Legislature to sustain it.”

 


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