Politics

June 25, 2013

LePage's budget veto sets up showdown vote

Democrats say they have enough votes to override the veto, but if they don't, Maine's government will likely shutdown.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A day before his deadline, Gov. Paul LePage made good on his longstanding threat to veto the two-year state budget that lawmakers passed earlier this month.

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Gov. Paul LePage speaks during a budget rally on Thursday June 20, 2013 in the Hall of Flags at the State House in Augusta surrounded by 60 of his closest supporters. A day short of his deadline,LePage made good on long-standing threats to veto a bipartisan two-year state budget proposal unanimously endorsed by a legislative committee.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Read Gov. LePage's budget veto message

In his veto letter to the Legislature, LePage called the budget "an opportunity missed," criticizing tax increases and education funding in the proposal.

Democrats say they have enough votes to override the veto when the Legislature convenes Wednesday. If they don't, Maine will face its first state government shutdown since 1991. The next budget is set to take effect July 1, which is Monday.

LePage had until the end of Tuesday to veto the budget, which the Legislature's Appropriations Committee endorsed unanimously and lawmakers approved on June 13.

He had threatened a veto since shortly after the budget came out of committee. Last Thursday, he held a rally with conservative activists outside his State House office to put pressure on Republican legislators to uphold his planned veto.

After his veto message was released to the media Monday, LePage breezed past reporters stationed near his office on his way out of the building, saying only, "Read the letter."

The letter criticizes Maine's "overly generous welfare programs" and the budget's temporary increases in the sales and meals-and-lodging taxes.

It also says the budget would reduce certain education spending and provide too much revenue sharing for cities and towns.

The budget had passed 102-43 in the House and 25-10 in the Senate. It takes two-thirds of voting members in both chambers to override a veto.

In the House, nine Democrats opposed the budget. They're expected to side with their party in an override vote.

Both chambers are expected to vote on the budget override Wednesday.

After the veto Monday, Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall said LePage is "not acknowledging and (is) misconstruing the facts" surrounding the bipartisan proposal.

"The track record during my tenure in the Legislature for unanimous votes out of the (Appropriations) Committee has been 100 percent," Goodall said. "I'm sure that will continue Wednesday."

The governor has railed against tax increases in the $6.3 billion, two-year budget, which would temporarily raise Maine's sales tax to 5.5 percent from 5 percent and increase Maine's meals-and-lodging tax to 8 percent from 7 percent.

"Mainers cannot afford it and with them I will stand," LePage wrote in his veto message.

But Appropriations Committee members from both parties have said the compromise budget is far better than the one the governor proposed in January. That budget called for the elimination of more than $200 million in revenue sharing to Maine cities and towns.

The committee's budget would restore $125 million to revenue sharing. It would also restore $9.1 million that LePage proposed cutting from Maine's homestead property-tax exemption program.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, an Appropriations Committee member, said after the veto that his constituents believe the budget's revenue-sharing number is "absolutely not" enough, "but it's a lot better than a full cut."

Republican legislative leaders are divided on the budget. Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, opposed it, saying in a prepared statement that the veto "gives us a chance to make the budget of Maine families a priority over the budget of state government."

But House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, a supporter of the budget, said LePage gives the Legislature two options: "Either a state shutdown or passing this budget."

"I don't see a viable plan or alternative to the budget," Fredette said Monday.

LePage has floated an alternative, asking for a 60-day resolution that would buy him time to avoid a shutdown while negotiating with lawmakers. But Attorney General Janet Mills has said the Legislature, by law, cannot pass a "continuing resolution" in place of a balanced two-year budget.

In recent days, LePage's office has sent out news releases criticizing the budget's education provisions, saying the committee cut $18.4 million proposed by the administration, including funding targeted for school improvement.

In a statement Monday, LePage called the cuts "irresponsible" and demonstrative of Democrats' "misplaced priorities."

Goodall called the initiatives that got cut "pet projects" that "were not focused on improving public education."

However, the Appropriations Committee didn't reduce education funding in the budget. It redirected most of the $18.4 million and put it into the Essential Program and Services formula that funds schools, said Rachel Tremblay, the education analyst for the Legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

In total, Tremblay said, the committee's budget would spend an average of $19 million more per year on education than LePage's budget would.

Looking ahead to the vote on the override, Goodall said he is "very confident" that senators will stick by their decision June 13 to approve the budget.

Fredette said the situation in his caucus is "fluid." In the vote approving the budget, 32 Republicans opposed it and 22, including Fredette, supported it.

In that vote, nine Democrats opposed the budget, largely because it would maintain Republican-backed income-tax cuts passed in 2011.

On Friday, Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, one of those nine, said she didn't know how she would vote on an override.

But House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Monday that he thinks the budget will pass.

"I think that they'll listen to reason," he said.

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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