Strong-arm tactics will result in long-term gridlock in Augusta

To date, Governor Paul LePage has vetoed (or let pass without his signature) 235 bills from the Legislature. If one were to seek his governing philosophy, there is no better place to look than his veto messages.

The state Constitution provides that a governor may approve a measure passed by the Legislature or return the measure “with objections” to the chamber where the bill originated (House or Senate). That chamber must “enter the objections … upon its journals and proceed to reconsider it.”

It is these objections from the Governor that reveal the philosophy behind his administration. Frustrated bill supporters may chafe at a bill’s demise and challenge the information on which the Governor made his veto decision, but his veto letters shows him to have a distinct governing philosophy, and in many cases not an unreasonable one.

There may be no better example of this than the Governor’s veto of bills to expand Medicaid. Passed by a referendum vote of the people in 2017 after repeated gubernatorial vetoes of legislation, it has stalled out when it comes to implementation. The Governor’s line in the sand is that the program be “sustainably funded into the foreseeable future.”

Problem. To provide sustainable funding into the future, the Legislature would have to raise taxes, a proposal that makes both Democrats and Republicans seasick, or identify another ongoing revenue source. The Tobacco Settlement Fund may be a possibility, but that would mean taking money from existing programs.

In this case, the Governor’s argument holds the fiscal high ground. We are not talking peanuts here. The cost could be anywhere between $30 million and $50 million, depending on who’s counting. Legislators are big fans of “buy now, pay later” and that goes for members of both parties.

If they can scrape together enough funding to get a program started, start it they will and worry about the follow-on years as they arrive. Sometimes token funding is provided, plus reference to revenue from “other sources” should it materialize. It rarely does. Likewise, a program may be passed with no funding source at all. The purpose is to get the program on the books and worry about the funding later.

In the case of Medicaid, recent state revenue that exceeded expectations could cover the initial cost of expansion, but what then? Medicaid expansion is an important program that would draw down federal dollars and provide health care for more than 70,000 Mainers. Should we use the available funds to get it started, or should we wait until ongoing funding is identified?

The Governor also expressed his objections to bills that would create new pilot programs or commissions, take up staff time with no additional resources, or cost taxpayers money. He even nixed a bill providing funding for the Maine Bicentennial Commission, calling it an “embarrassment” for its lack of prioritizing. “The Legislature’s desire to be all things to all people rendered its commitment to this historic moment meaningless.”

The Governor might make a more convincing policy case if he did not couch his veto messages in such insulting and accusatory language. After all, he is putting forth valid fiscal arguments for many of his vetoes but initiating a war of words does not lead to productive discussion or compromise. It simply leaves the two sides that much more entrenched.

Overturning a veto requires a 2/3 vote of both House and Senate. If the bill succeeds in the first chamber, it must be passed to the other body for the same 2/3 vote. Failure to achieve 2/3 approval in either body means a one-way ticket to the dead file.

Bills that pass enactment in the Legislature with simple majorities are likely doomed should the Governor choose to veto them. But as we have seen many times in this administration, a bill that passes enactment with more than a 2/3 vote in each chamber is not guaranteed to withstand a gubernatorial veto.

Particularly within the House Republican caucus, representatives who had originally voted in favor of a bill flipped their votes to negative following vetoes and killed bill after bill. There are those who would lay this recalcitrance at the feet of House Speaker Sara Gideon, who spearheaded the wholesale slaughter of House Republican bills this past spring. While those tactics did nothing to promote comity within the Legislature, it is also true that House Republicans danced to the Governor’s tune from the early days of his administration.

Strong-arm tactics may win the day, but it sets the Legislature up for the kind of gridlock we are seeing now in Augusta. There is no end in sight for the 128th. When it comes, legislative election campaigns will be armed with a full load of recrimination, none of which will do a thing for Maine’s future.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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