âVeto” is Latin for “I forbid” and it’s the power the constitution gives the governor to stop legislation cold.
It’s there for a good reason. Legislative districts are small, and legislators can represent narrow interests, even when they cobble together enough votes to make a majority. The governor is the only official in state government who is elected by all the people, and is, at least in theory, accountable to them all.
The theory is now being tested by Gov. Paul LePage, who has used his veto more than any governor in Maine history, crushing the record set by independent Gov. James Longley in the 1970s. LePage acts like he’s not responsible to the entire state, playing instead to a minority of the electorate who applaud his anti-government governing. And as long he has more than a third of the members in the House or Senate on his side, he gets the last word.
LePage has vetoed controversial bills, like the Medicaid expansion plans, important bills, like last year’s budget, and seemingly innocuous ones, like a resolve calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to report to the Legislature how it pays for certain autism programs.
He vetoed a solar power rebate program that would have increased a homeowner’s electric bill by 60 cents a year but would have created hundreds of construction jobs around the state, and promises to veto a bill that would make a life-saving medication available to police and emergency personnel who might be the first to respond to a drug overdose.
What these all have in common is the governor’s trademark “my-way-or-the-highway” approach that endears him to some and infuriates others. But this is not just a matter of style — collectively these vetoes represent a missed opportunity to make Maine a better place.
For good or ill, Maine people elected a divided government, putting the executive branch in Republican control and the Legislature in the hands of the Democrats. The only way to get anything done was to compromise.
Too often, LePage has been happy not getting anything done. On issue after issue, where he could have used a veto threat to negotiate a better bill, he stood on the sidelines and heckled. This year, he did not even submit a budget, the first time in living memory that any governor shirked that responsibility.
LePage likes to quote President Calvin Coolidge, who said, “It’s much more important to stop bad bills than to pass good ones.” But that doesn’t mean it still isn’t important to pass good ones if you can. To do that in divided government lawmakers have to be willing to give a some ground.
Last week’s Pan Atlantic SMS Group poll showed LePage with a lead in his three-way race for re-election with 38 percent support, about what he got on Election Day 2010.
The same poll had a telling figure about what Maine people want from their government.
When asked if they wanted elected officials who never compromised or leaders willing to work with opponents even if that means compromising “on core values,” the people surveyed overwhelmingly picked the second, 62 percent to 33 percent.
The last two years will be remembered for the lack of progress on important issues that matter to people. When it’s time to explain those failures, the voters will be the ones with the veto.