Gov. Paul LePage has adopted three distinctively different governing styles during his three two-year legislative sessions. The first two years, 2010-12, when Republicans controlled both House and Senate, he told the Legislature what he wanted and, with some exceptions, the Legislature did it.

From 2012-14, the Democrats controlled House and Senate, and LePage responded by saying no, a lot. He vetoed 83 bills in the 2013 session, by far a record. While Republicans sustained most of his vetoes, some measures became law despite his veto — the comprehensive energy bill and the two-year budget, including tax increases to compensate for 2011’s mammoth tax cuts.

LePage vetoed nearly 100 bills in 2014. Vetoes are symptomatic of a weak governor, and he achieved no major priorities, with one exception.

Since his re-election, Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the House. Since bills already have had bipartisan scrutiny, the veto strategy is less effective, though LePage is still issuing plenty of them.

Instead, the governor has shifted his focus to hostage-taking. He can’t force the Legislature to do what he wants — there’s no nuance in the man — so he holds up a legislative priority, a previously enacted law or even the state Constitution — to gain what he calls “leverage.”

Exhibit A is his handling of bond issues, where his hostage-taking began in 2013. He insisted a Medicaid shortfall to hospitals be paid with proceeds from future liquor sales, and refused to sign voter-approved bonds.

While insisting LePage’s tactics were illegitimate and vowing to “clarify” his bonding role, the Democrats first tried to attach Medicaid expansion to the debt bill, then, after another veto, gave in. It was, unfortunately, a successful hostage-taking.

Since it worked once, LePage tried again. Although he’d agreed to release all bonds once the debt was paid, and did sign the warrants for some, he continued to block two bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program.

It would have been good to know this earlier — no one mentioned it publicly for 18 months, but conservation groups finally did. LePage first said he “didn’t know” why the bonds hadn’t been issued, then decided he would hostage-up again, withholding his signature unless lawmakers agree to increase timber harvesting on public lands.

Let’s be clear: There’s absolutely no foundation for LePage’s assertion he has authority over bonds once voters have approved them. Admittedly, the constitution’s bonding provisions aren’t brilliantly drafted, but they mention only two situations allowing intervention after enactment. The Legislature can extend the five-year limit on issuing bonds, and the state treasurer, if lawmakers spend bond money on current expenditures, can garnish the general fund. Nothing about the governor. Nothing at all.

I’ve been told that chances of winning a court challenge to LePage’s lawless actions are slim — but why not try? LePage has taken flimsy cases as far as the U.S Supreme Court and lost. We might find a court reading the state Constitution the way everyone’s understood it for Maine’s first 195 years of statehood, as Republican Sen. Roger Katz put it. It’s fallen to Katz, of Augusta, not the Democrats, to finally challenge LePage’s bonding abuse.

Katz’s bill to repair the process was heard Monday. He put it perfectly in saying, “When Maine voters have spoken at the ballot box, no one, including a governor, should have a right to veto their decision.”

LePage adviser John Butera’s claim that the bill is “a blatant attempt to usurp the governor’s executive authority,” is, as the British say, a load of rubbish. A committee Democrat called it “ludicrous,” while a Republican said, “Whether I want it or not, we do what the people said.”

LePage also has delegated hostage-taking, with House Republican Leader Ken Fredette a willing co-conspirator. When the now-famous missing “and” from Efficiency Maine’s funding formula was discovered — and LePage’s Public Utilities Commission appointees insisted on a literal reading, a simple bill to restore the “and,” and funding, was filed. Fredette then tried taking another hostage. In return for correcting the typo, LePage could appoint, and fire, the Efficiency Maine director.

This made sense to Fredette, but no one else. He withdrew his amendment to the “and” bill, which passed the House 138-1. It’s now tabled in the Senate.

A Republican pollster then asked whether voters preferred Katz’s stance or Fredette’s. By a 4-1 margin, Katz was favored, including 2-1 among Republicans. Fredette just isn’t very good at the hostage game.

Less than a month before adjournment, the big issues, including the budget, remain unresolved. Maybe it’s time to hire a hostage negotiator. At the moment, we’re all hostages.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]


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