Attention, all Augusta watchers: With climactic votes looming this week on Maine’s proposed $6.3 billion biennial budget, I hereby declare a Flip-Flop Alert.
And what might that be?
Simple. It’s a message to voters far and wide to be on the lookout for Republican lawmakers who vote for the budget and, after Gov. Paul LePage vetoes it, do a 180 and vote to uphold the veto.
(For further reference, see: The Kerry Kiss of Death, in memory of John Kerry’s legendary comment during the 2004 presidential campaign about a supplemental military appropriation: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion … before I voted against it.”)
To be sure, there’s already been a lot of flip-flopping going on at the State House this spring. At least twice in recent days, in fact, scores of Republicans have voted to sustain LePage vetoes of bills that initially passed with no legislative opposition whatsoever – one prohibited smoking on Maine’s public college campuses, the other dealt with developmentally disabled Mainers.
But as the clock winds down on this tempestuous session, the stakes are now decidedly higher.
Two-thirds of the Legislature must pass a budget and, by the same majority, override a veto that LePage wasted no time promising Friday. Otherwise, state government will shut down come July 1 and Republicans who voted for the budget only to cave to the Big Guy’s pressure will find themselves stammering, Kerry-like, to the angry folks back home, “I actually did vote for the budget … before I voted against it.”
So what’s it going to be, Republican lawmakers?
Assuming the spending package unanimously endorsed just after dawn Friday by the bleary-eyed Appropriations Committee gets passed by the full Legislature, will LePage’s veto be nothing more than the latest in a parade of gubernatorial hissy fits?
Or will just enough of you flip-flop and throw the State House into a crisis it hasn’t seen for more than 20 years?
Put another way, to whom do you want to be hitched in the next election cycle – a bipartisan Legislature that got something done when it truly counted, or a governor who brought all of Augusta to a grinding halt and is damn proud of it?
Sitting in his office Friday, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he expects most of his colleagues will take a position and stick with it.
“I think there’s a natural inclination for people in the same party to want to be supportive of the governor,” said the ever-tactful Katz (who hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours). But as the Legislature now turns to the big-ticket items that need supermajorities to get past the Guv (the budget, Medicaid expansion), Katz added, “My guess is that when people decide to push the button on a vote, they’re more likely to say, ‘I’m pushing that button now – and again.’”
Down the hall, Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, said there are times when flip-flops are perfectly defensible.
“You might get new information that changes your mind” after a bill’s initial passage, Fredette said.
(A case in point: LePage’s recent veto of a bill banning a residency requirement for school superintendents, overwhelming passed by the Legislature, was upheld after the governor shared with Fredette and other Republican leaders a stack of protest letters from constituents in Biddeford whose local residency requirement would have been superseded by the statute.)
But on the big stuff like the state budget, Fredette said, lawmakers have a choice: Put your faith in the bipartisan Appropriations Committee, which labored long and hard to unanimously endorse the current spending bill. Or turn your back on all that and, when it truly counts, fall in behind LePage.
“It’s very difficult for someone who’s not sitting on the Appropriations Committee to understand all those moving parts and pieces,” Fredette said. “There’s a huge amount of trust because these are people who spend five months on one document. And it’s incredibly complex.”
Translation: Hard as parts of the budget might be for Republicans to swallow (most notably temporary increases in the sales tax and meals-and-lodging taxes), they pale by comparison to the fallout a state shutdown would rain down upon both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, doesn’t worry much about flip-flopping on a budget veto because he has no intention of supporting the current spending package in the first place.
That said, Thomas sees the flip-flop as a political balancing act: He’ll part ways with the governor on bills that Thomas considers important to himself and/or his constituents. But he’ll defer to LePage’s veto on measures that “don’t amount to a yellow hole in the snow.”
Ditto for Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who may flip-flop from time to time if a leading Republican on this or that committee tells him a veto is no big deal. But generally, Saviello said, he feels morally obligated to stand by his original vote the second time around.
“When I vote for something, if it’s controversial, I have to be able to explain myself,” Saviello said. “If I can’t do that, then I don’t belong here.”
A Republican lawmaker would have to be nuts, of course, to publicly admit up front that he or she plans to flip-flop on the budget. Yet hard as it might be to discern who will hold firm and who might succumb to the LePage administration’s inevitable arm-twisting, a consensus seems to be emerging that whatever budget does get passed in the coming days will be veto-proof.
In fact, noted one Republican who asked not to be named, LePage may well have rendered his veto meaningless simply by yapping about it so much.
“I think the governor has kind of taken himself out of the picture because he’s already made it pretty clear he’ll veto the budget,” this lawmaker said. “And in some ways, that’s sort of liberating to a lot of people” who already know they’ll have to vote twice.
Still, anything can happen between now and that blessed final gavel. With the budget, Medicaid expansion and the use of Maine’s liquor revenues to pay off the state’s $186 million hospital bill all still in play, the coming days will be, as Fredette put it, “three lifetimes in the political world.”
“What we want to do is be thoughtful and responsible,” said Fredette, the first political leader of any stripe to publicly use the word “shutdown” way back in February. “We know there are very serious consequences if the state does not have a budget come July 1.”
Saviello, now in his 11th year as a legislator, put it more bluntly. “There’s no other way to describe it,” Saviello said. “The next couple of weeks will be hell.”
Not a good place for flip-flops.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org