AUGUSTA — Faced for the first time with state rules regarding line-item vetoes by the governor, Republicans in the Legislature decided Tuesday not to break up their recess to review two vetoes by Gov. Paul LePage.

A phone survey by legislative officials showed that more than two-thirds of the Republicans in the House and Senate did not want to convene to decide whether to let the Republican governor’s vetoes stand.

LePage’s line-item vetoes Saturday of two items in a state budget-balancing bill marked the first time a Maine governor has exercised that power since voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1995 authorizing it.

The House and Senate are in recess until May 15, when they plan to return to take up additional fiscal matters.

LePage vetoed two figures in a bill enacted this month to bring the state’s $6 billion, two-year budget into balance.

“General Assistance is a welfare program that, like most others, has gotten out of control,” LePage said. “The amounts vetoed will put this issue back on the table, and the Legislature must summon the political courage to fix the program structurally. Hiding from our problems will not make them go away.”

He also vetoed a portion of the budget that authorizes Medicaid funding to house people involuntarily in secure public institutions, such as criminal defendants in mental hospitals. He said federal Medicaid rules do not allow using Medicaid funds for that population.

Because Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate, their vote effectively determined that the Legislature will not return this week to take up the vetoes. Majority votes are needed in both chambers to override such vetoes.

A majority of Democrats said they wanted to return to vote on LePage’s action.

“Democrats are ready and wanting to return to override the line-item veto,” said Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, the House minority leader. “We believe the Constitution puts us in a place where we really are obliged to act.”

Cain said the deep cuts in General Assistance sought by LePage would cause a tax shift to property taxpayers in cities and towns, which would have to make up the difference.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan noted that in his line-item veto, LePage rejected the funding for General Assistance but did not eliminate the state law requiring cities and towns to provide assistance to people who qualify.

Likewise, LePage did not eliminate the state’s obligation to share the cost of the General Assistance program, Brennan said. As a result, the state is still obligated to pay its share, which is 50 percent for most communities and 85 percent for several cities with high demand, including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor.

Republicans said that bringing lawmakers back to the State House this week would be “an unnecessary exercise and expense” because they will have a chance to weigh the issues raised by the governor when they return in May.

Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said some senators were concerned that voting on the two specific lines might jeopardize the rest of the budget package for the period through June 30, 2013.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.