AUGUSTA – The governor’s line-item veto power, which is at the eye of the latest budget storm in the State House, had remained dormant since 1995 when Maine voters overwhelmingly authorized the idea.
That year, the Legislature that was nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The independent governor at the time, Angus King, advocated its passage.
King said then that the ability to strike lines from a budget would fine-tune the relationship between the governor and Legislature, which the past week’s events in Augusta showed can be rocky and confrontational.
King also promised to use the power sparingly. That turned out to be more than true: No governor used the line-item veto until April 14.
That’s when Gov. Paul LePage scratched out two items in a budget-balancing bill dealing with General Assistance and Medicaid funding for institutional care. Suddenly, this long-spared power of the governor roared to life.
But the line-item veto power itself was not at issue as the two parties fought over procedures for responding to the governor’s action, and issues raised by LePage’s erasing of the General Assistance item. Democrats saw the majority Republicans’ refusal to take up the vetoes as an abrogation of their duty, while GOP leaders said the larger issue of welfare funding can be addressed in the weeks ahead.
Now that it’s had a test drive, the line-item veto may become a more frequently used option for governors in Maine, said Mark Brewer, University of Maine assistant political science professor.
“Absolutely we’re going to see it used here, by Gov. LePage or governors that come after him,” said Brewer, adding that he’s amazed it had not been used before.
Maine’s proposal gained traction a few months after Congress gave the same power to the president, with promises that it would lead to a more fiscally disciplined government. The federal line-item veto has since been taken away.
During Maine legislative debates on the issue, the bill’s sponsor, then-Rep. George Kerr, a Democrat from Old Orchard Beach, said the bill included adequate safeguards against abuse by governors. Supporters also pointed out that a line-item veto could be overridden by majority votes in each house of the Legislature, less than the two-thirds majorities needed to override regular vetoes of bills.
“If you can’t get a simple majority, then it probably wasn’t too good an idea to begin with,” Dana Hanley, then a Republican senator from South Paris, said at the time.
But Elizabeth Mitchell, a Vassalboro Democrat who was assistant House majority leader, warned against it, saying the line-item veto tilts the balance of power between legislative and executive branches toward the governor.
Legislative records show that the line-item veto was debated 14 times in the Legislature between 1963 and 1993, and each time it was defeated. But once it was passed by the Legislature, the idea was ratified by more than 70 percent of the voters. At the time, only six other states didn’t have the provision. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 44 states today have line-item vetoes.
After it first went on the books, the line-item veto generated confusion in the State House, enough that lawmakers and King asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for advice on how it would work. In their response, the justices said it wouldn’t give too much power to the governor.