AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage scored a major political victory this week with the rejection of a bill calling for the expansion of Medicaid.
It’s the most prominent of numerous legislative battles Republicans have won this session despite being outnumbered by Democrats. Those victories range from paying hospitals $484 million in past Medicaid debt on their terms to turning back Democrats’ goal of repealing deep income tax cuts enacted two years ago.
Democrats have had their share of victories as well, including, from their perspective, squashing some of LePage’s proposed changes to the state’s charter school law, adding public school funding to the biennial budget proposal, raising pay for state employees and tempering $200 million in cuts to municipal revenue sharing that were proposed by LePage. But LePage’s veto pen and most Republicans’ willingness to stick with their governor have thwarted Democrats’ success on a number of issues.
“It’s been a real disappointment that we haven’t been able to overturn any of the governor’s vetoes,” said Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. “Some of the votes by Republicans have been against good policy just so they could stay in line with their governor.”
Republicans, especially in the Senate, have held fast in sustaining more than 20 LePage vetoes, but the biggest battle lies in wait for next week when the Legislature returns to Augusta to make some of the most momentous decisions of the session: overriding LePage’s veto of a sweeping energy bill and his expected veto of the biennial budget. According to both Democrats and Republicans — and even LePage himself — a split between Republicans and the chief executive could be in the offing.
The stakes are elevated by the fact that failure to pass a budget by July 1 will result in a state government shutdown. LePage on Thursday suggested a “continuing resolution” temporary budget, but Democrats were cool to that idea, especially after Attorney General Janet Mills said it would not pass constitutional muster.
Asked by reporters what he expected to happen on the biennial budget, LePage answered the question Friday with an analogy.
“I feel like a general leading a foot battle and saying ‘fix bayonets,’ and I hear one click,’” said LePage, whose primary objection to the budget is that Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee agreed on sales, meals and lodging tax increases to soften some of the governor’s proposed cuts.
“We had a balanced budget,” said LePage, who has promised numerous times that he’ll veto the budget by Tuesday. “We had room to sit down and fix things they’re concerned about, but taxation right now is not appropriate. It is simply not what we need when we’re the 50th worst place in the nation to do business.”
One of LePage’s fiercest allies throughout the legislative session has been House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, who has managed to hold his caucus together in support of more than 20 LePage vetoes to date. They’ll face more next week, including 10 that LePage signed on Friday. But even Fredette said Friday that the budget vote could be different, even though most Republicans strenuously oppose tax increases.
“Vote after vote in the House has resulted in party-line votes on tax increases,” said Fredette. “The posture of the budget is different in terms of where we are today. I see this as a choice between passing this state budget or voting for a state government shutdown. Those are horrible choices but I don’t see any other options at this point in time.”
Though he didn’t commit, Fredette said he is likely to vote against LePage on the budget — as he did when the House first considered it — in order to keep government running, but he sees it as a temporary solution and hopes lawmakers can work on a supplemental budget next year that eliminates the tax increases and backfills them with increased revenues that are expected as the economy rebounds.
“I’m hoping the governor will come forward with a supplemental budget to amend this budget,” said Fredette.
The assistant Republican leader in the Senate, Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, said Friday he plans to vote to override a budget veto.
“There was a 13-0 vote in the Appropriations Committee after months of negotiations and hearings,” Katz said. “The committee is made up of 13 people ranging from the most conservative of Republicans to the most liberal of Democrats. They were able to reach consensus. I want to respect that process.
“I didn’t want to vote for any tax increase, but I just don’t see an alternate path forward without placing further pressure on our local towns and cities to raise property taxes even further,” he said.
Goodall said he and other Democrats are counting on Republicans to recognize the dire consequences of shooting down the budget by sustaining LePage’s veto.
“We as Democrats are confident that many Republicans will join us and do what is right for the state of Maine,” said Goodall. “We don’t need another budget package. We have one that was recommended unanimously by the Appropriations Committee.”
The margin for a veto override on the budget is about as narrow as it could be. The House passed the measure 102-43 and the Senate voted 25-10. Both tallies, which attracted five Republican senators and 23 House Republicans, are just a vote or two over the two-thirds veto threshold. A few House Democrats who voted against the budget told the Bangor Daily News that they would likely support an override to avoid a state government shutdown, offering a little wiggle room, but not enough to compensate for many GOP flip-flops.
Bangor Daily News political analyst Robert Long contributed to this report.