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How LePage — and his veto pen — remade Maine politics

Matthew Stone | BDN
Matthew Stone | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage signs a veto, May 23, 2013.

Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as Maine’s 74th governor will be complex and varied, ranging from his conservative accomplishments to verbal explosions that put Maine in a negative national light.

But while his mouth has attracted most of the attention, there is no denying that his use of the veto pen will cement his place in the history books.

With three of his four terms spent as Democrats held legislative majorities, the Republican governor’s veto became the most formidable weapon in his efforts to simultaneously advance his conservative agenda while thwarting liberal and moderate initiatives. To say he set records is an understatement.

LePage has vetoed 642 bills, but let’s put that into some context.

That number crushes Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s eight-year total of eight. Independent Gov. Angus King, in eight years before Baldacci, was relatively prolific with 50 vetoes — all but two of which were sustained by the Legislature.

According to data compiled by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library, which dates back to 1917, LePage has vetoed 173 more bills than the last 23 governors combined.

A tool for a duel

Most of LePage’s vetoes were to block policy changes with which he disagreed. Some were line-item vetoes, composed of changes to numbers within a bill but not the bill in its entirety. That’s a tool that LePage revived after at least a century of dormancy in Maine.

At times, such as when he demanded an end to Maine’s income tax in 2015 or when he was pushing his plan to repay Medicaid debt to hospitals in 2013, LePage has vetoed every bill that came to him for days or weeks at a time, stating publicly that his intention was to waste the Legislature’s time.

Critics and frustrated legislators pilloried him for what they saw as abrogation of the executive branch’s responsibility, but LePage’s vetoes — individually and in waves — proved a powerful weapon in his power struggles with lawmakers, often giving him an upper hand despite the fact that he was outnumbered.

He has been lambasted by his opponents for the number of vetoes he penned as well as his reasons for issuing them, but there’s no arguing that he has used the veto pen effectively. There are 336 fewer laws on the books today because of it — plus uncountable others that died elsewhere in the process because of just the threat of a veto.

In essence, LePage reinvented State House culture, notably blowing up the notion that bipartisan majority support for a concept before it reaches the governor’s desk means likely passage. Now just about any bill needs two-thirds support to make it into law.

LePage also fumbled with his veto pen. His veto letters have at times revealed that he didn’t know what the legislation he vetoed would do, and in 2015, a fight over whether LePage missed his deadline to veto 65 bills went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — where LePage lost.

Underlying principles

The list of policies that LePage blocked — with the help of minority House Republicans backing him with their votes — is long. In some instances, such as in state budget bills that LePage vetoed or threatened to, negotiations after or under the threat of veto resulted in major amendments.

Some patterns have emerged, such as LePage’s general distaste for studies and the Legislature assigning tasks to the executive branch. He has aggressively squashed studies and task forces, peppering his veto letters with caustic condemnations of lawmakers for using studies as ways to avoid action on difficult issues or to usurp his authority.

He has also used the veto letters to excoriate opponents and make headlines, such as when he unsuccessfully vetoed a bill making an opioid overdose antidote more available, writing that “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.”

The veto flood continues in LePage’s final year in office. Last week, lawmakers in both chambers spent hours voting on 43 new vetoes, sustaining 23. In his nearly eight years in office, that’s close to his overall average success rate of 53 percent.

LePage’s record use of the veto pen goes far beyond the thrusts and parries in a long-term duel between executive and legislative branches. It plays a significant role in cementing his legacy as a savvy politician who won more battles than he lost and reshaped Maine government and politics in ways that will last long after he and his pen leave the Blaine House

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