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Maine Lawmakers Override Gov. Veto

Augusta, Maine — Maine lawmakers voted yesterday to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the state budget, temporarily raising Maine’s sales and meals and lodging taxes and putting an end to a possibility of looming state shutdown.

The budget override is a significant defeat for the Republican governor. Until Wednesday, enough Republican lawmakers have sustained all of LePage’s vetoes, including Medicaid expansion under the federal health care overhaul and a bill designed to encourage the study of climate change. But Republicans and Democrats said yesterday that despite their issues with the budget, the stakes were too high to reject the spending plan days before a possible government shutdown.

“Today is really hard day for the governor,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “I think it’s starting to become clear that he’s irrelevant and it’s very hard to come to that acknowledgement when your own party won’t stand with you,” he said.

The House voted 114-34, followed by a 26-9 vote in the Senate, easily reaching the two-thirds majority of present and voting members needed to override LePage’s veto.

After the vote, LePage called it a “real sad day for the state of Maine.”

“I think we certainly solidified our place as 50th-worst place in the country to do business in the foreseeable future,” he said

During more than four hours of debate in the House and Senate, lawmakers calling for the veto override emphasized the chaos that would result from a shutdown of government services without a budget in place by July 1. On the House floor, Democratic Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham read from newspaper articles during the last shutdown in 1991, calling it “a nuclear meltdown in Augusta.”

During the almost 20-day shutdown in 1991, state workers got no paychecks, residents were prevented from registering their vehicles or getting drivers or fishing licenses, courts were shuttered and construction projects were halted. Thousands of protesters filled the front lawn and halls of the state Capitol.

“In the most simplest terms, I want to tell you, that it was hell,” said Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, who was serving in the Senate at the time.

LePage vetoed the $6.3 billion, two-year budget Monday, saying the temporary sales and meals and lodging tax increases would be particularly harmful for Maine’s elderly population who live on a fixed income. He also criticized the budget for removing some education funding he had wanted to set aside some for projects like adult education programs and career and technical education centers.

But Democrats and Republicans who supported the override Wednesday said that even though the budget isn’t perfect, it’s an improvement from the governor’s proposal and will prevent a government shutdown.

“There isn’t a member of this chamber who couldn’t find fault with some aspect of this budget,” said Democratic Rep. Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston, House chair of the Appropriations Committee. But, she added, “in divided government, we cannot demand all or nothing.”

LePage had wanted to suspend municipal revenue sharing, which lawmakers and Maine’s cities and towns said would cause a massive tax shift onto property tax payers. Lawmakers restored about $125 million toward revenue sharing and put in place the temporary tax increases instead.

After the vote, LePage maintained that communities could have cut spending in order to prevent a property taxes hike under his budget proposal.

Lawmakers who spoke in favor of sustaining the veto said there is a third option besides this budget or a government shutdown: the 60-day temporary budget Gov. LePage had proposed to buy time to negotiate a better budget deal.

“The concern over a state shutdown is very valid, because it creates fear and uncertainty in the hearts of people,” said Republican Sen. Andre Cushing of Hampden. “But that’s not the only reason we should be voting on the budget,” he said, adding lawmakers should work to avoid imposing too large of a burden on any part of Maine’s population.

Republicans said raising Maine’s 5 percent sales tax by a half-cent and meals and lodging tax from 7 to 8 percent — even temporarily — will hit Maine families at the time when the economy is just starting to turn around.

“Let’s make the family budget a priority over the state budget,” said Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, who voted to sustain the veto. “Right now, I think we’ve got that the other way around.”