Editor’s note: This story is part of a series examining Gov. Paul LePage’s legacy as his tenure comes to a close, including his impact on the economy, politics and more. You can read the rest of the series here.
Gov. Paul LePage arguably found no weapon more effective for advancing conservative priorities and beating back liberal policies than his veto pen.
The Republican governor crushed all records for vetoes during his eight years in office. He vetoed 642 bills. That’s more than his predecessors Democrat John Baldacci (eight) and independent Angus King (50). In fact, LePage vetoed 173 more bills than the past 23 governors, combined. That’s going back to 1917.
He even named his pet dog Veto, a testament to the centrality of the veto pen to his style of governance.
His used the veto to remake State House culture, overturning the notion that bipartisan majority support for a bill means likely passage. During the final six years of his tenure, when Democrats controlled at least one chamber of the Legislature, nearly all bills required at least two-thirds majority support to make it past the governor’s desk.
Now as LePage’s administration comes to a close, here’s a look back at six of the fiery Republican’s more memorable vetoes.
Instant Medicaid veto
LePage has long opposed Medicaid expansion, even fighting a 2017 voter-approved law directing the state to extend the health care program to 70,000 Mainers earning under 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
That 2017 effort came after LePage vetoed five legislative attempts to pass Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. It was in 2013 when LePage inked the death of the first of those attempts.
LD 1546 tied expansion to a plan to pay back Medicaid debt owed to Maine’s hospitals, a defining issue during LePage’s first years in office. Minutes after the bill passed the Maine Senate, LePage issued an instant veto of the legislation.
“This unadulterated partisanship tied two different issues together in a quest to force welfare expansion upon the Maine people. I have said all along this bill would receive a veto when it reached my desk, so this letter should be no surprise,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.
That bill failed to survive the veto, starting what would become a routine for any legislation to expand Medicaid. Days after that proposal died under the veto pen, a second bill to expand Medicaid separately from the hospital debt payback fell to a LePage veto.
No time for studies
LePage for the most part has not supported studies, and he has vetoed a number of bills to study issues from workplace bullying to whether Mainers are paying their fair share of taxes on online purchases.
There are ample examples, but let’s look at one, 2015’s LD 435. The bill would have extended through November 2016 a 2014 pilot program exploring ways for municipalities to control invasive green crabs preying on soft-shell clams.
It’s a concept LePage supported in 2014 and that also garnered unanimous legislative support when a proposal to extend it came around in 2015. The governor vetoed the bill, saying enough time had been spent studying the issue and that the state ought to put the information gleaned from the pilot to use.
“Let’s react to the data, not simply continue to extend this pilot ad infinitum. … Now is the time to react to the information we have learned, not simply dither,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.
The bill failed to survive his veto.
LePage’s vetoes sometimes provoked a strong pushback, and none more so than his veto of a bill to expand access to the overdose antidote naloxone.
In 2016, lawmakers passed LD 1547 to permit pharmacists to dispense naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, without a prescription. The goal was to turn the tide in the rising number of fatal drug overdoses, which reached a deadly record of 418 last year.
LePage raised doubts about whether naloxone would achieve that goal when he issued his now famous veto.
“Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them to the next overdose. Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.
That provoked an immediate backlash both in Maine and nationally. Milo’s police chief, for example, blasted LePage’s veto as “uninformed.”
Lawmakers overrode his veto.
In July 2017, LePage appeared to backtrack on his earlier criticism of naloxone, saying at an event in Bangor that “Narcan will save lives.”
The relationship between LePage and the 127th Legislature was a combative one. When he vetoed LD 1682, LePage didn’t miss an opportunity to rip “socialist” lawmakers.
LD 1682 was a legislative effort to intervene in a Maine Department of Health and Human Services move to change criteria for Medicaid-funded services for adults with intellectual disabilities and autism. That bill came after a push from families of disabled Mainers and advocates who feared the rule changes would cause Mainers to lose access to services.
In vetoing the bill, LePage argued that part of the reason lawmakers weren’t dealing with budget shortfalls, particularly in DHHS, was that the executive branch had the freedom to make decisions. He criticized lawmakers for using the bill as an “opportunity to nullify rulemaking they do not like.”
“For most of Maine’s recent history, there was little disagreement between the executive branch and the majority in the Legislature because they were both controlled by like-minded socialists. Many in the Legislature have been frustrated by the lack of one-party rule in recent years and have therefore introduced misguided bills like this to infringe on the powers and micromanage the affairs of the executive branch,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.
LePage had taken to blasting liberal lawmakers as “socialists” after an unsuccessful January 2016 effort to impeach him, even using his 2016 State of the State address to excoriate his political opponents and making 12 references to “socialism.”
LD 1682 failed to overcome LePage’s veto.
Another frequent target of LePage’s veto pen were bills he saw as part of an expanding “nanny state.”
In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill — LD 1170 — to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21 from 18, but left smoking legal for those who are at least 18. LePage blasted the move as “ social engineering” in a veto letter.
“But I am equally concerned about this attempt at ‘social engineering’ by those who do not respect the rights and responsibilities our society vests in our citizens when they become 18. … I cannot support legislation that denies the right to purchase a legal product to those who are otherwise treated as adults,” LePage said in his veto letter.
LePage also took issue with the bill’s fiscal impact. A fiscal note accompanying the bill estimated it would reduce state revenue by $3.6 million in the 2017 fiscal year and $4.7 million the following fiscal year.
He also said Maine convenience and grocery stores would lose sales if the state raised the legal age to purchase tobacco, particularly those on the border with New Hampshire.
His veto was overridden.
One last veto for the road
LePage signed his 642nd veto on Sept. 11, 2018, and made his parting shot at the Legislature.
The target of his veto pen was a bill — LD 1925 — meant to cover more than $334,000 in unforeseen costs related to the use of ranked-choice voting in the midterm elections. LePage blasted the request for additional funds from Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap as “shifty financing and insouciant oversight at its worst” and “a shakedown of Maine taxpayers.”
But before excoriating the request for more election funds, LePage reflected on his time as governor and the “sacred responsibility” vested in the veto pen.
“Over the past eight years, I have exercised this constitutional prerogative more than any of my predecessors. I did this not for my own amusement nor to claim bragging rights. Rather, I vetoed your bills because it was my responsibility — my sacred responsibility to the people of Maine — to defend their liberties, to keep our fiscal house in order and to hold the Legislature accountable for both the content of law and the conduct leading to its enactment. Sometimes blocking bad bills is as important as passing good ones,” LePage wrote in his veto letter.
LePage’s last veto was upheld.