Maine’s idea: vetoes create potential problems for Democrats

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Recent headlines trumpeted Republican Paul LePage’s entry into the 2022 governor’s race against incumbent Democrat Janet Mills. If both candidates stay in place – and Mills surely isn’t going anywhere – the broad outlines of the results aren’t hard to discern.

LePage, which benefited from multi-candidate fields in the plurality contests in 2010 and 2014, never won a majority of the votes.

Mills won a seven-vote Democratic primary in 2018 using the ranked vote, and in November beat his Republican opponent and two candidates also with an absolute majority. She was the first governor to win one since Joe Brennan’s re-election in 1982 – and the first to win a first-term majority since Ken Curtis in 1966.

Ranking voting does not apply to the November election for governor, so it could be a one-on-one. Democrats have learned the lesson, and an Eliot Cutler candidate will not be on the ballot.

As governor, LePage has spent the last six years of his tenure preventing Maine from accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid, even defying a law voted by voters in 2017 requiring it.

Mills immediately got to work implementing the expansion; when the pandemic arrived, Maine was ready and tens of thousands of Mainers were insured as a result, at a modest cost to the state. Voters would have a clear choice.

The most interesting, and potentially significant, story involves Mills’ vetoes on many bills passed by other Democrats in the legislature.

LePage made a prank of his veto pen, rejecting 642 bills – far more than the previous 22 governors combined, dating back to 1917.

But as of June 30, Mills had already vetoed 26 bills, including 16 in the current session – a stark contrast to his pre-LePage predecessors. And since lawmakers sent him dozens of additional bills in the two days leading up to adjournment, more veto are certain.

Brennan, who served four years in the Republican Senate, vetoed two dozen bills over eight years. Angus King vetoed 50, but he was a governor without a party, and conflict was to be expected.

John Baldacci, the most recent Democratic governor who served fully in a Democratic legislature, vetoed only eight bills.

The difference between Mills and Baldacci results from the current upheaval within the Democratic Party. When Baldacci served, the legislative leaders were of the same moderate lean.

With Mills, the party is much more progressive. Nationally, President Biden has moved well to the left on issues dating back to his days in the Senate; Mills has not budged so far.

They face a younger and much more liberal base than their own predecessors. Second terms such as Senator Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro), Representative Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) and Representative Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) – all elected in previously Republican districts – are already influential.

Much of the conflict between Mills and the legislature involves criminal justice reform measures, a movement that is still gaining momentum across the country. Mills, a former attorney and attorney general, is resisting change.

His most publicized veto, on an offer to close Long Creek Jail for Youth in South Portland, was softened by a deal as part of the Supplementary Budget that is expected to eventually lead to the same result.

But even gradual measures have often won veto; some carefully crafted veto messages by Mills suggest that, had the administration been willing to work with committees, a better outcome might have been possible.

Certainly, some invoices were sent knowing that a veto would result. Democrats’ attempts to join the anti-Central Maine Power train have sparked and will provoke vetoes on the Hydro-Quebec power line and on the Pine Tree Power Co. project.

Part of that category is Mills’ already maintained veto of a measure allowing tribes in Maine to open casinos – something tribes in the other 49 states can already do. One of Baldacci’s eight vetoes came on a similar measure.

Tribal legislation, however, is a curtain raiser for what is sure to be one of the fiercest debates in the Legislature next year. A postponement bill aims to implement the broad recommendations of a 2019 legislative task force, covering not just gambling, but a host of legal, environmental and sovereignty issues.

This year’s casino bill was archery, a suggestion the governor is reconsidering the previous opposition.

A little-noticed but noticeable campaign event during the 2018 primary was the gathering of all Democratic candidates – except Mills – on the Indian island, the Penobscot tribe reservation. The show of solidarity was impressive, and the recognition of tribal rights has since become an important part of the Democratic legislative agenda.

Mills needs the enthusiastic, not lukewarm support of his party to be re-elected. Former governors often negotiated their differences with lawmakers behind the scenes and came to an agreement long before vetoes came into play.

Maybe it’s time to stop fighting and start talking.

Douglas Rooks has been an editor, commentator, journalist and author in Maine since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love”. He welcomes comments to[email protected]


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