AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage issued a line-item veto of parts of the supplemental budget Saturday, telling lawmakers they need to be more courageous when cutting spending.
“We need a profile in courage in Augusta,” he wrote. “We must do what is right, without regards to the next election. It is why we all took that solemn oath and that is why I ask each and every one of you for your support of these vetoes.”
In his veto letter, LePage told lawmakers they had not made enough structural changes in General Assistance to gain his support. General Assistance, jointly funded by municipalities and the state, is designed to help the poor with emergency needs. Most of the money pays for housing.
House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, released a statement Saturday that said cities and towns will face higher property taxes if the vetoes stand.
“Republicans and Democrats worked together to find a way to pay the bills, and address the concerns of our cities and towns,” she said. “It’s clear now that the governor is more interested in getting a pound of flesh than balancing the books. His priorities are out of touch with the needs of Maine people.”
The House and the Senate gave final approval to the budget Friday and had not planned to return to Augusta until May 15 to consider more budget items. However, talks were ongoing among legislative leaders Saturday evening as they discussed whether to come back into session next week to consider the vetoes.
Legislators have five days to vote on them. Unlike other vetoes, these require only a majority to be overridden.
The budget, which includes additional spending on court security, the computer crime laboratory and other areas, gained unanimous bipartisan support of the Appropriations Committee. House and Senate votes were strong too, with both chambers supporting the budget by more than two-thirds.
LePage said earlier in the week that he would not sign the budget because it did not cut enough from the program, but he stopped short of threatening a veto.
Instead of rejecting the entire document, he struck out individual items totaling $6.2 million in funding for cities and towns to support General Assistance. LePage argues that spending on the program has continued to rise and it must be reformed to contain costs.
“General Assistance is a welfare program that, like most others, has gotten out of control,” he wrote. “The amounts vetoed will put this issue back on the table and the Legislature must summon the political courage to fix the program structurally.”
During House and Senate debates, Democrats argued that they did not support additional cuts to the program because they feared such a move would hurt people who need help and that it would shift additional cost to payers of local property taxes. Instead of instituting LePage’s cuts, Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee modified them and set up a task force to come back with recommendations next year.
While the governor sought to limit housing assistance to 90 days, lawmakers extended that to nine months. LePage proposed cutting the state reimbursement rate for large cities from 90 percent to 50 percent; lawmakers reduced it to 85 percent.
The budget includes a $10 million increase in funding for the program, but the new limits on benefits — including a 10 percent reduction in what individuals can receive — will shave nearly $2 million from the cost.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, said last week that the negotiations about the General Assistance cuts were the most difficult budget debates he’s seen in the last four to five years. Mayors and lobbyists for low-income Mainers urged lawmakers to blunt the cuts.
LePage also struck $3.1 million from the budget that he says is inconsistent with federal law. His original budget called for spending $10 million for forensic patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, but lawmakers reduced the amount. LePage’s recommendation followed a letter from the federal government advising states that they can no longer bill Medicaid for some of those services.
“The way Maine funds mental health treatment for prisoners and those found not criminally responsible likely violates federal law,” he wrote. “That risk must and can be avoided.”