Legislature hits home stretch, but rush of vetoes could slow things down

Good morning from Augusta, where lawmakers have hit the home stretch.

Today is the third day of a one-week extension to the legislative session, which was scheduled to end June 17. Budget negotiations pushed far later than usual and a slew of gubernatorial vetoes — including 64 line-item budget vetoes — have succeeded in serving Gov. Paul LePage’s goal of “wasting time.”

Senate and House leadership are pushing to finish the Legislature’s work by Wednesday, but there are still bills waiting to be dispensed with in either chamber.

One of those bills is LD 369. As amended by the Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the bill would allow legally present noncitizens such as asylum seekers to receive General Assistance benefits for up to two years.

The issue of GA for asylum seekers and other immigrants emerged as a key sticking point in the late-night budget showdown last week. Democratic lawmakers — especially ones from Portland, which has a large immigrant community — opposed a budget deal that didn’t protect those immigrants from having their benefits cut by the LePage administration.

Many, but not all, Republicans in the House support LePage’s cuts. For months, they portrayed the move as taking benefits from “illegal immigrants,” despite the fact that asylum seekers are legally allowed to remain in the U.S. while their asylum applications are pending. Many of these immigrants are fleeing violence or war in their own countries.

LD 369 now represents a compromise: By instituting a two-year cap on GA benefits for noncitizens, Republicans can go back to their districts saying they reformed welfare, as promised. And Democrats can say they protected vulnerable immigrants from being thrown out on the street.

But first, the House of Representatives must take up the bill. Republicans there have been more vocally supportive of LePage’s efforts to cut GA benefits than their Senate counterparts, so it’s unclear whether the compromise will be enough for them. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who opposed the Volk amendment, said he expects the bill to die between the chambers.

And the LePage administration is also moving to kill the bill. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said she was “appalled” by the Senate’s actions and reiterated the administration’s belief that money spent on GA for asylum seekers is money taken away from needy Mainers.

“Mainers have spoken loud and clear that they believe public benefits should go to Maine citizens in need, not to non-qualified aliens, but a majority in the Senate has decided to listen to welfare industry lobbyists instead of Maine citizens,” she said in a press release.

The bill could be taken up by the House as early as today.

There are other bills out there in legislative limbo too, which will have to be dealt with before lawmakers wrap up for the year. It’s possible the session may be extended once more, but the general feeling in the State House these days is one of restlessness.

Maine’s is a citizen Legislature, full of public officials who run for an office advertised as part-time and low-pay. There’s little appetite to stick around Augusta all summer just because of politics. In other words: lawmakers want to go home. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

Veto watch

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage upped the ante on his veto threats. Where previously he said he’d veto all Democrats’ bills, he now says he’ll veto all bills, a form of protest against the Legislature for not going along with his plan to eliminate the income tax.

The governor says that ensuring all bills obtain a two-third majority — needed to override his veto — before they become law will make for more representative government.

And, as I’m sure you’ll recall, the governor also said during a memorable press conference last week that he intended to waste legislators’ time — a costly endeavor, given the Legislature is already past its statutory adjournment date and additional time in session could cost up to $100,000 per week.

And so I present the 21 bills vetoed by Gov. LePage on Friday. I’m not going to list them all, but here’s a link to the veto letters. Vetoed bills include an effort to encourage hunting by letting nonresident college students pay resident-level fees, which LePage said “ineptly addresses the wrong problem.”

He also vetoed a bill to ensure tribal representation on the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse and a bill to limit the use of shackling on juvenile detainees. Several study bills got the axe, as well as a couple election-reform bills and four bills that committed the offense of being sponsored by Democrats — including “An Act to Assist Persons with Breast Cancer.”

The Legislature will take up veto override votes on these bills as early as today. Lawmakers seem increasingly frustrated by LePage’s veto theatrics, and are making a habit of overriding the vetoes quickly and quietly. Not every bill, for sure, but a lot of them. We’ll keep you up with veto override votes here in the Daily Brief. — Mario Moretto, BDN.

Reading list

Watch out for sharks

If you have any staunchly urban friends — I do — who eschew the messy, great outdoors in favor of the cold structure of brick and cement, you’ve probably heard a sentiment like this one: “Everything in nature wants to kill you.”

But if your friends are like mine, they probably still hit up the beach every now and then. So maybe don’t show them this story about Saturday’s great white shark sightings off the coast in Wells, Portland and Old Orchard Beach.

While the sightings were reported on the 40th anniversary of the release of “Jaws,” officials in the three towns said the reports are credible and that great white sharks appearing in Maine waters is not that unusual. — Mario Moretto.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.