Tsunami of vetoes turned back

When it came right down to it, it was not taxes or welfare or school funding that united the Maine Legislature. It was an assault on the institution itself that propelled the House and Senate through an unprecedented voting blitz, ending in a fired-up standing ovation.

Governor Paul LePage began with some history-making of his own, vetoing dozens of lines in the budget not because he objected to their content, but as he said, “for five months, they wasted our time, and this time I’m going to waste a little of their time.”

What had been a tenuous budget agreement among the four legislative caucuses was suddenly ironclad. Legislators linked arms and formed a seawall against the tide of gubernatorial vetoes. Even House Republicans, claiming victory for having held out for so long, finally packed it in, and Minority Leader Ken Fredette delivered his caucus.

LePage’s message to the Legislature consisted of nothing more than a copy of the budget with a series of lines scratched out. Culling a list of vetoes out of the document fell to House staff. Once that was done, the House took a deep breath and launched into an auctioneer-style attack on the vetoes, and down they all went, one after the other, in record time. The Senate followed suit.

The governor attempted to take the fight to the streets, Christmas tree and squeaky pig in hand. House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe referred to it as his “little arts and crafts project.” No one was impressed.

After the John Christie article about secrecy in the Maine budgeting process, others piled on. Said Jim Fossel of the caucuses leading up to a budget agreement, “No public notice was given of any meetings. No recorded votes were taken. We have no idea what was said in the party caucuses. Legislators were given the document only hours before it was sent to the floor.”

Yeah, and your point is? Budget meetings and a great deal of other legislative work always has happened out of the public eye. Consider, as one writer did, that the “budget was negotiated by four men.” Well, things are looking up. In 2001, it was negotiated by two men: Senate co-presidents Mike Michaud and Rick Bennett, who spent the better part of 24 hours closeted in a senate office and came out deal in hand. They took it straight to the floor to put it before the Senate. Legislators did not have minutes, let alone hours, to look at it.

Appropriations House Chair Peggy Rotundo attempted to explain the need to retreat to appropriations back offices, saying “Sometimes it’s difficult to get people to talk about the process publicly.” Well, (a) if you believe those back room discussions are all about process, we have a bridge you might be interested in buying, and (b) these are not just “people” we are trying to persuade to speak publicly, they are our legislators, duly elected (and paid) by the voters.

Though she defended the Appropriations Committee’s right to work in the dark, Rotundo was none too pleased when the committee’s budget was whisked away by leadership. The work the leaders undertook normally “would have been done in appropriations,” said she. After all, if you are going to work behind closed doors, it should be the right closed doors.

Mal Leary, dean of State House reporters, quit his position on the Right-to-Know Citizens’ Advisory Committee in protest of what he called a “travesty.”

Excuses were legion. They ran out of time for a more public process. There are “types of legislators who are absolutely uncomfortable in public talking about difficult things” – at least this representative added, “and that is not right.” All the policies being negotiated already had had public hearings. Caucuses are “party business.” And they can conduct that party business in a state facility?

Does the furor over secrecy in the State House have legs? Advocates of a more public process have good ammunition in Maine’s Freedom of Access (Right to Know) law. It states quite plainly that “It is the intent of the Legislature that their actions be taken openly.” Some construe “actions” to mean votes, not the discussions leading up to them. Not so.

Though the focus has been on getting a budget passed, and the governor has done his level best to gum up the works, this Legislature has more business still before it than it should, given that they should have adjourned by now. These remaining bills could prove to be more problematic than the process of beating back the governor’s vetoes.

The governor has now extended his “all vetoes, all the time” policy to Republicans, too, and it is widely expected that he will veto the budget as a whole, waiting until the last possible minute on June 29 to do so. That is a miscalculation.

The Legislature has developed some solidarity and will quash any further efforts of the governor to drag out the inevitable. Whatever heart they might have had for additional debate is gone. It’s time to go home.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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