By Scott Thistle, LSJ State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA — An often tumultuous first half of the 127th Maine legislative session came to a nondramatic close Thursday more than six months after it started — making it one of the longest in recent state history.
In all, LePage issued more than 178 vetoes; lawmakers in both bodies overrode 126 of them, including six Thursday.
Besides what amounted to a running political gun battle with LePage, the biggest work the Legislature completed is a $6.7 billion state budget that will guide state revenues and spending until 2017. The measure lowers the state’s top income tax rate and eliminates taxes entirely on military pensions while increasing the state’s general sales tax and sales taxes on restaurant meals and lodging.
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, Senate majority leader, said there was little doubt the session would be one for the history books and would likely be studied for years to come.
“We broke precedents, we questioned tradition but we inevitably got the job done,” Mason said in a closing floor speech. “I’m very proud of this body; this is the first time in a long time that we can seriously sit here and say this Legislature worked beyond partisan divides and did the right thing for the people of Maine, no matter what the cost was for us politically or what the cost was for this body.”
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, Senate minority leader, also praised his colleagues for crafting some major reforms in a bipartisan fashion.
That’s not to say there were not significant moments of disharmony between Republicans and Democrats as they wrangled over who should benefit from tax cuts, as well as a host of other issues, including the elimination of the permit requirement for those who want to carry concealed handguns.
But all in all, Alfond said relations between lawmakers grew stronger in 2015.
“What I will remember most is how this Senate body came together and worked together and through it all remained incredibly calm,” Alfond said.
Mason and Alfond praised the leadership of Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. Thibodeau was serving his first term as Senate president and found himself at the heart of several key negotiations, most notably the two-year budget bill that earned him the praise of his colleagues and the ire of LePage.
“You’ve become not only a very good friend but an admired leader, from my perspective,” Mason told Thibodeau. Mason said Thibodeau had earlier in the session been given the “Right Man at the Right Time” Award by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and he agreed the award was fitting for Thibodeau.
For his part, Thibodeau issued a straightforward thank-you. “Working together, we were able to pass significant tax relief, maintain revenue-sharing for our local communities and protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
On Thursday, the Legislature overturned six of the seven vetoes issued by LePage earlier in June but sustained one veto that would have otherwise required LePage to issue a series of bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program.
Six House Republicans flipped their positions and went from supporting the bill to standing with LePage on the veto.
Those who voted to overturn LePage’s veto said he was overriding the will of Maine voters. LMF bond questions have never been rejected by voters and have been approved with 60 percent of the vote or more.
But those who voted with LePage said the Legislature was going too far in trying to change the powers given to the state’s executive branch of government.
“It’s a pretty significant shift to take something from the executive branch and shift it over to the legislative branch,” said Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, House minority leader, speaking in favor of sustaining LePage’s veto.
But Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, echoed the sentiment of many lawmakers, saying LePage was stealing power directly from voters.
“No executive should be able to override the will of the people,” Beavers said. In all, 90 House members agreed with Beavers while 51 sided with Fredette, but the vote didn’t obtain the two-thirds threshold necessary to overcome the veto.
Those who changed their votes on the original bill included Reps. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn; Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn; Jeffrey Pierce, R-Dresden; Thomas Skolfield, R-Weld; Michael Timmons, R-Cumberland; and Stephen Wood, R-Greene.
But even those who voted to sustain the bill had harsh words for LePage, including Wood who said he changed his vote only because the measure wasn’t specific to the Land for Maine’s Future program and he felt taking the governor’s rights on all bond measures went too far.
Still, Wood said, he was highly opposed to the tactic of using voter-approved bonds as leverage for some other policy objective the governor wants to achieve.
“The governor is being an —hole about this and you can quote me on that,” Wood said. “I would tell him to his face, if I ever got the chance.”
Bickford said he only voted to sustain the veto because he believed LePage was bringing a bill that would revive some bonds that were set to expire without being issued.
That bill, however, was amended by House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe and turned into a resolve directing LePage to issue the bonds, which will likely face a veto from the governor once the Legislature returns in January 2016.
LePage on Thursday also attempted to veto 65 bills that legislative leaders have said already became law when LePage failed to veto the bills within 10 days of receiving them. That issue is likely to be settled by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court as LePage has vowed to ask the court for an opinion on his interpretation of the state constitution, saying he believed the Legislature had adjourned June 30.
When lawmakers did finally adjourn, Mason, who had also been targeted by LePage’s political action committee, People Before Politics, for not supporting LePage’s budget proposal, delivered the adjournment message to the governor’s office sporting a hard hat.
In the House, Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, praised his colleagues for working together across the aisle to process more than 1,400 bills, noting that 436 of them became law in 2015.
“We made great strides to help improve the lives of Maine families against the odds of a divided government,” Eves said in a prepared statement. “Lawmakers came together to do right by our citizens. If you are a senior or a young family struggling to pay your property taxes, you will see more money in your pocket this session. If you are a student struggling to pay for college or a worker looking for job training, you will have more opportunity to get a good job and a better wage. If you are a parent or student or teacher, you will see more investment in the classroom.”