Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) may have won a hard fought re-election campaign in 2014, but after an extraordinary series of confrontations with the state lawmakers in both parties, the second-term governor is starting to lose the support of the state’s more moderate GOP.
A dispute over LePage’s botched attempt to veto dozens of bills earlier this month is only the latest battle between the increasingly combative governor and state legislators, including the Republicans who control the state Senate.
Emboldened by his reelection, LePage has used everything from tedious procedural mechanisms to squeaky pig toys to publicly rebuke state lawmakers for not falling squarely inline behind his agenda. In the process he has alienated Republicans within and outside the statehouse, who are no longer willing to mask their misgivings with his leadership.
“We’ve got a governor who has really gone over the line. He’s not governing well. He’s making a mockery of the Maine government right now, and I think it’s Republicans’ responsibility to stand up and push up against that,” said Lance Dutson, a veteran GOP operative in the state. Dutson recently formed the group Get Right Maine to support Republicans who want to return to a less hyperbolic approach to governance.
“[LePage] has made the environment toxic,” Dutson told TPM Monday.
The latest example of the break between LePage and his legislative counterparts came last week, when leaders of the Republican-controlled Maine Senate joined those in the Democrat-controlled House to refuse to recognize the governor’s attempt to veto some 60-plus bills, legislation lawmakers say already has become law because the governor blew his deadline to act on them.
Denying he botched anything and declaring that it was all part of a plan to force the legislature to act, LePage has turned to the state Supreme Court to determine whether his vetoes were valid. The state Supreme Court has set oral arguments in the case for July 31.
According to Dutson, the trouble started when LePage kicked off the legislative session pushing a budget that would significantly expand the state’s sale tax to offset the cuts he sought to the state income tax. It went too far for even the conservatives in the statehouse, and leadership instead settled on a bipartisan $6.7 billion budget package that took five months to hammer out.
LePage responded to the compromise deal in a spectacle of a press conference last month involving squeaky pig toys and a Christmas tree with ornaments representing the “gifts” lawmakers were supposedly giving special interests with the budget package. LePage promised to use line item vetoes — a tactic which would slow down lawmakers’ ability to enact the package — in retaliation.
“For five months they wasted our time. It’s time I’m going to waste a little bit of their time,” the governor said.
LePage was already engaged in a veto war with liberal lawmakers, blocking any legislation sponsored by Democrats — regardless of its merits — to punish them for not going along with his attempts to put a constitutional amendment eliminating the income tax on the ballot.
For the last month of the legislative session, LePage vetoed bills by the dozen regardless of whether the governor opposed them on policy grounds, often sending the bills back with antagonizing veto messages for lawmakers.
“Their giddy eagerness to get along with colleagues on both sides of the aisle swiftly supersedes their sworn duty to the people who sent them to Augusta,” he said in one. LePage had argued that that his reelection — which he won by a nearly 5 percent margin — was an endorsement of his agenda.
LePage’s daughter’s political organization targeted some Republicans with robocalls after the budget fracas. Defending the move, LePage said he “helped a lot of people in the Senate get elected” and that his “coattails were pretty well stomped on.”
No polling has been done one his support among Mainers since the election so it’s unclear whether the growing disenchantment among Republicans in the capitol extends statewide.
“For whatever reason the governor has chosen to demonize the entire legislature and people in both parties who don’t always agree with him on everything,” Sen. Roger Katz, a moderate Republican, told Politico. “There is so much he could get done if he chose to work with the legislature instead of against it.”
If anything, LePage’s abrasive approach has brought the Democrats and Republicans in the statehouse closer together. The vetoes LePage sent back to the legislature were often overturned quickly and at times, unanimously and legislators were able to enact their budget.
“If anything he helped develop our relationship between my leadership and the Democratic senate leadership,” state Sen. Thomas B. Saviello (R) told TPM, calling LePage’s maneuvers a “nuisance” more than anything else.
Saviello credits the Republican leadership of Senate President Michael Thibodeau and Majority Leader Garrett Mason for navigating the lawmakers through the tricky waters.
“Those guys realized early on that there was gong to be conflict with the governor and they did a very brave thing. They broke from him,” Saviello said.
And it’s not just budget issues that have roiled the relationship between LePage and legislators. Accusations that LePage’s threatened to withhold $1.06 million in state funds to a charter school over its choice to hire Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, as its president prompted Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to unanimously vote to launch a bipartisan inquiry into the matter.
An investigation is underway, despite LePage’s objections, with a report slated for September.
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