June 24, 2013

State House notebook: Override of budget veto in spotlight

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

With the scheduled legislative session over as of last week, the last large item looming over state government is the most important one: Maine's next two-year budget.

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The Legislature has approved the $6.3 billion budget due to take effect July 1, but Gov. Paul LePage has said he is going to veto it. He has until Tuesday to do so, or it will become law without his signature. Without a budget, state government would shut down in July.

In light of that, the focus turns to whether the Legislature could override his hypothetical veto by getting more than two-thirds of the House of Representatives and Senate to vote against the governor.

At first glance, it appears that they should: It passed the House 102-43 and the Senate 25-10. The margins were slim, though. Both bodies passed it with just a one-vote cushion.

Nine House Democrats voted against the budget largely because LePage-backed tax cuts they campaigned on repealing were left in it, but they are seen as less likely to vote with the governor in an override scenario.

Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland, one of those nine, said Friday that she "couldn't commit one way or the other" on a possible override vote, but "I haven't talked to anyone who wants a shutdown."

Leading Democrats, meanwhile, are saying they'll have the votes to override. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said it Thursday at a media availability.

But not so fast, said House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, on Friday. He has expressed support for the budget and voted for it. But the majority of his party in the House -- 32 members -- did not.

"I think that Democrats' assertion that they have the votes should be put in the perspective of the current situation," Fredette said. "They don't know what's going on in the House Republican caucus or the Senate caucus."

But Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said it's a leader's duty to gain the needed support for the budget, a bipartisan compromise brokered by the Legislature's Appropriations Committee in concert with party leadership.

"When you have bipartisan agreement, it's pretty much agreed upon that the parties will bring at least two-thirds to the table," McCabe said. "If I couldn't bring two-thirds of our caucus to vote for it, it would be a failure on our part."


After LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett announced Tuesday that her office wouldn't talk to the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel after reporter Colin Woodard's three-part investigative series on Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho last week, many in journalism and public relations condemned the move.

On his blog, Dennis Bailey, a public relations consultant who served as independent Angus King's spokesman when the U.S. senator occupied the Blaine House in the 1990s, bluntly called the move "stupid."

Bailey was also critical of Woodard's reporting, calling it an "unbalanced" series of "award-bait articles" that were "out to prove from the beginning that industry reps and former clients had the ear of the DEP commissioner at the expense of the environment."

Still, in an interview Friday, Bailey spoke of a public-relations "rule of thirds," composed of a news outlet, a politician and the politician's opposition.

No matter how negative a story, "if you remove yourself from that equation, readers get your opponent's point of view and not yours," he said. "You end up validating your opponent and the newspaper."

And, Bailey said, the move "just draws more attention to the newspaper."

That's been true so far, if you measure online social-media traffic of Woodard's stories compared with the Press Herald's story on LePage's gag order on the paper.

(Continued on page 2)

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