March 3, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Lincoln, hostage negotiators offer hope

This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. to correct that Lincoln was not president at the time of the speech

Way back in 1859, in a speech before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, soon-to-be President Abraham Lincoln told a story of a monarch who once instructed his wise men to "invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations."

The wise men came back with the words: "And this, too, shall pass away."

"How much it expresses!" Lincoln exclaimed. "How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

And how fitting for Maine's Legislature, where "this, too, shall pass" morphed last week into "but then it will be vetoed."

Many throughout Augusta and beyond were caught off guard Friday morning when Gov. Paul LePage called into a Bangor talk radio show (it's where he does his deepest thinking) and threatened to veto any and all legislation that reaches his desk unless lawmakers first pass his hospital payback plan.

"Every single bill that is passed now, until the hospital payment is passed, is going to be vetoed," LePage told WVOM's Ric Tyler.

Speaking for all of Maine, a clearly startled Tyler replied, "I'm sorry, sir? What?"

He heard right. We've got a hostage situation on our hands, folks, and the Big Guy's armed with a ball point!

"The next bill I sign as governor is going to be the hospital bill," LePage later told WCSH's Don Carrigan. "And if (legislators) aren't willing to bring it to me fast, why don't they just close the session and go home, spend time with the kids and we'll see you next January."

It's worth noting here that in any other era of Maine politics, this would be a fairly run-of-the-mill standoff:

The Republican governor wants to use cash from the state's soon-to-be-revamped liquor contract to pay the $184 million state share of Maine's $484 hospital debt -- the rest will come from the federal government. And he wants it done yesterday.

The Legislature's Democratic majority, meanwhile, wants to decouple the liquor contract and the hospital debt and proceed more cautiously to ensure that a) the liquor deal is the best Maine can get and b) the hospital debt is balanced with other spending priorities.

Different points of view? No doubt.

Worth grinding the entire legislative session to a halt?

Only in LePage Land, where temper trumps due diligence and the negotiating tool of choice is the monkey wrench.

So who might we look to as the hostage negotiators here?

Who can approach the Big Guy, tell him to put down the veto pen (he actually boasted Friday that he has three) and come in off the ledge?

The Legislature's minority Republicans, that's who. And much to their credit, it looks like that's what they're already doing.

Friday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau of Winterport and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport sat down with Le-Page to, as Thibodeau later put it, better "understand exactly what he's saying."

They had good reason: Let's say an innocuous piece of legislation -- call it "An Act to Thank God for the Maine Blueberry" -- sails through the House and Senate only to land atop the ever-growing pile marked "veto" on LePage's desk.

Do the Republicans dutifully fall in behind their governor and refuse to thank God for Maine's blueberries? (Cue the attack ads in the next campaign cycle.)

Or do they join with their Democratic colleagues and override that and an endless stream of other vetoes -- and in the process render the de facto head of their party utterly irrelevant? (Cue independent 2014 gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler.)

(Continued on page 2)

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