Governors can generally get their way -- even intimidate legislators -- through the power of the veto. Unless, of course, they overdo it. That seems to be the story in Maine, where animosity between the executive and legislative branches has reached an entirely new level.
The conflict boils down to Republican Gov. Paul LePage wanting the legislature to move toward abolishing the state income tax. When that didn’t happen this session, he decided to veto practically every bill that reached his desk. In all, LePage has issued nearly 170 vetoes this year. That’s a big number, but what’s really striking is the fact that the legislature managed to override him about 70 percent of the time -- more than 120 overrides in all, including the state budget. This, despite the fact that his party controls the state Senate. “It’s clearly not about him versus Democrats,” says Phil Bartlett, chair of the Maine Democratic Party. “It’s Gov. LePage waging war against the legislature.”
Indeed, the fight is certainly more institutional than partisan, which is unusual. Most governors can veto with impunity, as long as their party controls a third of either chamber. The last great “serial vetoer,” New Mexico GOP Gov. Gary Johnson, rejected hundreds of bills during the late 1990s and was never overridden until his final year in office. There have been some governors who have been routinely overruled, but you’d have to reach back to the early 1990s to find examples. More common is a case like Wisconsin, where not a single veto has been overridden over the past 30 years.
That’s not how it’s playing out in Maine. The current drama started when LePage threatened to withhold state funding from a nonprofit unless it withdrew a job offer extended to Mark Eves, the Democratic state House speaker. (Eves filed suit against the governor in July, accusing him of “vindictiveness and partisan malice.”) After that, LePage decided to veto practically anything that came his way. The state Supreme Court ruled in August in a dispute between LePage and the Democratic attorney general that the governor had waited too long to veto 65 bills. “He’s alienated his own party’s leaders, as well as the rank and file,” says Howard Cody, a University of Maine political scientist. “The governor has become so unpopular with the legislature, many members have become predisposed to override on principle, regardless of the details of the bill.”
The question now is how the governor and legislators will get along over the next three-plus years. Maine has a long tradition of bipartisan agreement. That’s still happening between the Democratic House and the Republican Senate, a dynamic that could leave LePage out in the cold -- and get worse for him, if voters blame him for ongoing disputes and put Democrats firmly in charge of the legislature next year. “As long as the legislature can vote two-thirds in favor of some bill, it doesn’t matter what the governor thinks of it,” Cody says.