Ending Volatile Session, Maine Legislature Overrides More Than Half of Governor's Vetoes
By Christopher Cousins
When the House and Senate gavels came down for the final time on Friday, the Legislature had sustained a dozen of the governor's vetoes, killed one bill by sending it back to committee and overridden the rest.
Virtually all that was left for the House and Senate to do Friday was to decide to block or allow 33 new vetoes from Gov. Paul LePage, setting up an anticlimactic end to a two-year session that saw state government come to the brink of shutdown over a budget impasse and some of the most fierce sniping between the legislative and executive branches that Maine has seen in years.
Much of the attention leading up to veto day was around a solar policy bill the Legislature has been debating for months, which sought to increase the amount of solar-generated electricity in Maine's energy portfolio by nearly tenfold. Arguments that LePage has been mischaracterizing how the bill would affect electricity rates for Mainers and that killing the bill would kill jobs were unsuccessful. LePage's veto was upheld in the House by a vote of 93-50, which fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
The House and Senate went against LePage on a bill that would increase access to Naloxone, a lifesaving antidote to opioid overdoses that LePage opposed because he said it is being overused and allows addicts to prolong their addictions without seeking treatment. LePage has been under intense national pressure regarding the bill since his veto, particularly for saying Naloxone doesn't save lives, but only prolongs them until the next overdose.
Despite all the controversy, the bill had an easy time to enactment on Friday, with a 29-5 vote in the Senate and a 132-14 vote in the House.
Lawmakers also were able to curtail an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to overhaul how much providers of Medicaid services are paid. Mental health service providers raised the alarm over the proposed rules in March, leading to the proposal of LD 1696, which imposes a moratorium on any rate changes until a legislative study can be completed. The Senate voted 28-6 against LePage's veto but the bill barely squeaked through the House, which on a 102-45 tally came within two votes of killing the bill.
Though a Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House led to numerous bills dying because of disagreements between Republicans and Democrats, the 127th Legislature did make progress on some fronts, including the marquee issue of fighting drug addiction. The Legislature and LePage agreed to pour millions of dollars in new spending on law enforcement, treatment and recovery to fight drug addiction and approved a $150 million facilities bond that will create a major expansion at Windham Correctional Facility, including 200 new beds for inpatient and outpatient substance abuse services.
As the 127th Legislature took what are likely to be its final votes and adjourned until next year, political observers diverted their gaze from the present to the future.
The November 2016 ballot could go down as one of the most consequential in state history and debate over the questions on it -- from school funding to setting a higher minimum wage to legalizing recreational marijuana -- already has ramped up what will be a months-long push to Election Day.
With the entire Legislature up for re-election and so many ballot initiatives in waiting, campaigning through the summer will be fierce. The hundreds of candidates about to join the conversation have some catching up to do with LePage, who has for weeks been using his town hall meetings to draw attention to the November ballot. In particular, he is rallying against an increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour and against a new tax on income over $200,000 a year that would directly benefit public schools.
Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau said serving in the 127th Legislature was hard and at times "doggone miserable." But he said progress is progress, no matter how minor.
"If we do everything exactly right and if we make all the right decisions, our state is still going to have tremendous obstacles," he said shortly before adjournment. "If we make life just a little bit better for the 1.25 million people of Maine, then that's a great thing."
(c)2016 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)