Lawmakers from both parties who attended an annual State Chamber of Commerce summit at Sunday River last night say Gov. Paul LePage was pretty fired up when he addressed the crowd.
A quick caveat: I haven’t been able to get a comment from the LePage administration about the summit, but I’ve pieced together a pretty good idea of some of the newsworthy aspects of LePage’s speech from interviews with both Democrats and Republicans who were in attendance.
The governor was upset, I’m told, about the 114-21 vote the House took earlier in the day, to approve a bill that would use money from two state savings accounts as well as new revenue to pay for $40 million of state aid to municipalities in 2015. LePage and some Republicans have criticized the bill, which they say jeopardizes the state’s bond rating and ignores the more immediate budget shortfall faced by the state.
LePage was unhappy that a veto-proof majority in the House — including roughly 30 Republicans — had given the bill initial approval, and said he would wash his hands of the entire episode, letting the chips fall where they may. He’s done the same with the shortfall in this year’s budget, which was approved over his veto last year. Since then, he’s said the budget is the Legislature’s problem, not his.
But he told the business officials and lawmakers present that he would not veto the revenue sharing bill if it arrives at his desk, even though he opposes it.
“He said, ‘If this is the course they’re going to take, I’m not going to stand in the way. But they’re going to have to figure out on their own how to solve 2014,’” said Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden. “It would be accurate to say the governor was disappointed in [the House vote], but he that he would not veto it if it came before him.”
Several other attendees confirmed that LePage had said he would not veto the bill. They asked to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to get involved in a political story.
The bill still faces amendments in the House and several more votes in both chambers. Still, Democratic lawmakers say they were happy with the governor’s decision not to veto the revenue sharing bill, saying they had been working under the assumption that he would.
“I was surprised, genuinely surprised, to hear the governor say he would not veto the bill,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who was present for LePage’s speech. “But I was also pleased because it means we are one step closer to securing that $40 million for Maine towns and lowering the anxiety for town councilors and property tax payers across the state, who want to be able to plan their budgets accordingly.”
On Monday, LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, told a reporter that the governor would veto the bill. But since then, lawmakers have been perplexed about the governor’s plans.
Democrats assumed he would use his veto pen, but one House Republican, who asked not to be identified for speaking out of turn, said chaos reigned during the floor debate on the bill Thursday because the GOP caucus could not get a straight answer from LePage’s administration about whether he would veto or not.
When reached for comment Friday afternoon, Bennett would not confirm the governor’s statement at the Chamber event, nor would she give a clear answer on whether the governor would veto the revenue sharing bill if it landed on his desk. She would say only that, “the governor’s position has not changed.”
LePage speech at the leadership summit was, by all accounts, an impassioned and even angry one. Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, of Allagash, who has bumped heads with the governor in the past, said LePage’s speech was “erratic.”
Cushing said the governor was upset the House had chosen to use new revenue and the state’s rainy day fund to pay for revenue sharing, which municipalities use to pay for local services and keep property taxes down.
The governor and some GOP lawmakers, including the ranking Republican on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, have said it is irresponsible to use new revenue to fill a need next year when there’s a critical shortfall that needs to be addressed this year, including a nearly $80 million hole at DHHS. Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett has said that taking $21 million from the state’s rainy day account will result in less favorable bond rating for the state, which could hurt budget lines for years to come.
The governor also said that he would not release bonds worth up to $100 million for transportation infrastructure projects if the bill is approved by the Legislature.
Return of the ‘Black Heart’
In a move that Chamber of Commerce organizers may now regret, the table directly in front of LePage while he addressed the summit was filled with Democratic legislative leaders, including Jackson and Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves.
The governor and Jackson, who have traded barbs publicly before, apparently sparred again, briefly, during part of LePage’s speech.
Jackson said the governor had been lashing out at lawmakers all night. At one point, LePage accused someone at the table of laughing inappropriately. Later, LePage made a comment about someone in the room who “must be campaigning.” Jackson, who is running for Congress in the 2nd District, interpreted that as a jab about him.
“So I said, ‘It must be my black heart, huh governor?’” Jackson said, referencing a comment LePage made about the Allagash lawmaker last year. “I wasn’t going to continue to let him berate us. It seemed to unnerve him a little bit.”
LePage didn’t take the bait, and said he would not respond to Jackson’s outburst, but would say that Democratic lawmakers didn’t know how to do math.
Cushing confirmed Jackson’s version of events, as did House Minority Whip Jeff McCabe and two other lawmakers — one Republican and one Democrat — who asked to remain anonymous.
Efforts to obtain comment from the governor’s office about the exchange with Jackson were unsuccessful.