AUGUSTA, Maine — When the Legislature adjourned in June, the rift among lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage was as wide as it’s been during his tenure — and wider than at any time since the state government shutdown in 1991.
The question going into the January legislative session is whether that rift will block hopes of any effective legislative action in a four-month session that will open and close with the specter of November legislative elections enshrouding the State House dome.
LePage spent the final weeks of this year’s session vetoing nearly every bill that came to his desk. After being handed defeats on his state budget plan and many of his social service reform proposals, his admonishments of the Legislature were loud, harsh and frequent. LePage and lawmakers clashed on whether he had missed a deadline to veto 65 bills, a fight that had to be settled by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Since then, the Legislature has been investigating LePage’s role in forcing Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves out of a job at Good Will-Hinckley, which has only aggravated relations. And then there’s Eves’ civil Supreme Court lawsuit against LePage, which will be lingering in the background for months or maybe years.
It wasn’t just about LePage. Through all the political chaos, a chasm grew between House Republicans — led by Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport — and the rest of the Legislature on the state budget, the adjournment question — and now, apparently, on a plan to address Maine’s drug addiction crisis.
As lawmakers prepare to head back to Augusta for the second half of the session, passing any meaningful legislation will require them to navigate a challenging obstacle course.
As bad as relations are, it’s not like they were ever very good.
There are plenty of examples of accomplishments by the Legislature during the five years in which LePage has been governor, but for the most part the State House and the Maine electorate have been increasingly polarized through LePage’s tenure. Remember the fights over Medicaid expansion and tax reform? LePage and lawmakers calling each other names? The ongoing battle over conservation bonds that LePage refuses to let through? Though the discord may be worse now, it’s only worse by increments.
There is widespread agreement about how the state should ramp up its efforts against illegal drugs. Or is there?
In recent weeks, lawmakers and the LePage administration have reached tenuous agreement on details of a drug-fighting package that was announced this week. That apparent accord was a major step forward after months of cold shoulders from the chief executive toward lawmakers, notably Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, who was expected to be one of LePage’s closest legislative allies. If the administration and legislative leaders can establish even an uncomfortable working relationship to replace the open hostility that has reigned since May, it could go a long way toward avoiding contentious floor wars in March — and April and, possibly, another slew of vetoes.
But even here, there are signs of trouble.
Fredette and Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, presumably on behalf of most or all of the House Republicans, were not part of the announcement of the drug package and have publicly balked at supporting the details within it. While LePage is at least agreeable enough to those details that he has pulled back his stated intention to call up the Maine National Guard against a growing heroin crisis, his public statements critical of increasing treatment and recovery services for addicts raise questions about whether he will sign off on the $4.8 million bill, which spends equally on both sides of the addiction equation.
As has become a familiar spectacle in Augusta, LePage has seized power on this matter months before he may need to use it.
As lawmakers were rolling out the drug-fighting plan on Wednesday, the governor was issuing a $781,000 financial order, funded by surpluses in the gambling control board and MDEA budgets, to immediately appropriate money for the 10 new drug crime investigators. LePage has stated that he intends the money in his financial order to be replenished by the Legislature’s bill. That could be a powerful bargaining chip if LePage decides to oppose the $2.4 million in new spending for treatment and recovery.
If the overall bill fails, he’ll be able to call lawmakers irresponsible for not replenishing the money, even though the financial order was signed without their input. In addition, Fredette and House Republicans’ early objections give them space for negotiations against the agreement that at this point is just between Democrats and Senate Republicans.
In an election year, LePage has little incentive to work with the Legislature.
The governor’s frustration with the Legislature is obvious to the point that he is resorting to the statewide ballot to accomplish his goals of slashing the state’s income tax and implementing a series of welfare reforms. The Maine Republican Party is taking the lead on collecting the roughly 65,000 signatures that are required to force a question to the November 2016 ballot. Collecting those signatures will be a steep climb for the Republicans, who were able to collect just 10,000 signatures by Election Day. Whether the initiative fails or not, it will be prime fodder for Republicans’ efforts to make gains in next year’s legislative elections.
LePage is not up for re-election, but he will be a power broker whose political machine will likely be a significant asset to candidates supportive of his conservative agenda. And if LePage stymies effective policymaking during this year’s session, it gives him more ammunition for his narrative that most legislators are do-nothing obstructionists beholden to special interests.
Democrats are under pressure to show significant results.
A small group of Democrats and independents remains intent on bringing impeachment charges against LePage, but there is little indication that their effort will go anywhere. Democrats have been campaigning against the governor since he was first elected. Aside from 2012, when Democrats rode President Barack Obama’s coattails in reversing the previous election’s Republican gains, they have seen LePage’s support among voters and the general public grow. With three years left until the end of LePage’s second term, Democrats desperately need to retain a majority in either the House, where they already have one, or the Senate. In the House, some of the numbers are troubling. Fourteen Democratic incumbents will be ousted by term limits, compared with only two Republicans in that position.
If major strides are made on fighting drugs this year, both parties will claim victory. Democrats need to make progress on a separate issue, such as somehow forcing LePage to release the conservation bonds, in order to put themselves in a strong position for the election.
And then there is always the economy. Despite an unemployment rate that has been creeping downward for years, the news for good jobs in Maine has been terrible for months as mill after mill in Maine’s paper industry goes bankrupt, lays off workers or shuts its doors.
After all, elections are almost always about jobs, aren’t they?