Gov. LePage and Portland City Council both accidentally did the right thing

Gov. LePage and Portland City Council both accidentally did the right thing

Governor Paul LePage and Portland’s mayor, Michael Brennan, have caught some flack in the last week or so over an inability to read the law, and the consequences that followed. There’s been some talk of “comic relief,” and of executive incompetence. In the governor’s case, the ridicule has even gone national.

There are smile-worthy parts of these stories, but  appalling and genuinely sad aspects as well.

The governor accidentally protected new laws he was determined to kill because he misunderstood how the “pocket veto” works. The mayor, meanwhile, and Portland’s city council, apparently debated a minimum wage hike several times, and passed it, without realizing the effect of the move on about 40% of the city’s minimum wage work-force. On their face, these seem like bad mistakes. Article IV of the state constitution is pretty clear on the fact that a governor can’t “pocket veto” legislation if the legislature isn’t actually adjourned, and Portland’s city council had input from a lot of interested parties while they worked on their minimum wage bill.

But let’s cut Governor LePage and Mayor Brennan a little slack. Sure, they created whole new political realities in Maine without meaning to, largely because they misread (or failed to read) the law. Before we give these fellows the horse laugh, let’s see what they actually managed to accomplish.

The governor was trying to cut the state legislature out of the business of legislating. He feels he has a mandate and that Maine’s senators and representatives were failing to translate his vision directly into state law, so he decided to chastise them by broadly vetoing any bill that came his way, including the state budget, and by referring to the leadership of both chambers, from both parties, as corrupt.

When they responded by over-riding his vetoes, he came up with a new plan — he would “pocket veto” of a big stack of bills, just to make sure that the legislature couldn’t continue their new pattern of overrides, either killing the bills or forcing the legislature to waste more of their time overriding them.

The results of that failure are, frankly, pretty terrific. Just two examples: LD 319 probably would not have survived a regular veto — it passed with a majority, but not with the 2/3 necessary to defeat LePage’s opposition. But now,thanks to the failed pocket veto, some 13,000 Mainers are going to have access to reproductive health care, and because the expansion is through Medicaid, the state is actually going to save money, about $3 million, while expanding services. LD 369, meanwhile, will ensure 24 months of financial assistance to asylum seekers, documented immigrants seeking refuge in the United States who are forbidden, by federal law, from seeking employment while their claims are formalized. The bills’ sponsors did not have the votes they needed to override a LePage veto, but thanks to the “pocket” fiasco, Maine will provide aid, not deprivation, to a population in need.

The minimum wage increase in Portland is an example of real political (and ethical) leadership by the elected officials of our largest city. Hopefully, it will have an exemplary effect on attempts to ensure a living wage for working people in other cities — Bangor is considering the same thing — and statewide. (The Maine People’s Alliance is fighting to do just that.)

Although the city council apparently intended to leave service workers who receive tips out of the deal, a mistake in calculating the state tip credit has ensured that the wait staff, bartenders, hotel workers, and others receive the same wage increase. This is a crucial reform. Tipped service workers in Portland’s economy often struggle to make ends meet, and although the law provides remedies for workers who don’t receive the minimum wage to which they are entitled, they often also lack the financial or social capital to take restauranteurs to court. In any case, as the example of San Francisco shows us, paying a living wage to members of the service industry puts more money into the local economy. As Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor has noted, roughly 40% of Portlanders working for the minimum wage are tipped employees; the City Council couldn’t have left them out of the wage hike without committing a new injustice.

So, yes, there is some humor in Portland’s mayor telling the Press-Herald that he thought he had been following sound legal advice when he misunderstood the scope of the new legislation, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an elected official tell a reporter, “I’m in the uncomfortable position of talking to a reporter who knows more about this issue than I do.” And while the governor’s plan of spending yet more taxpayer dollars fighting in court to pretend that he hasn’t  failed to veto state government into collapse is infuriating, there is some low comedy in it.

Meanwhile, the anger of those who thought their policy preferences were going to be represented — the Maine Restaurant Association, the Republicans in the state legislature planning to uphold gubernatorial vetoes on women’s health care and asylum seekers’ benefits — is entirely appropriate. But at the end of the day, thousands more Mainers will have access to health care, food, shelter, and a living wage because of these comical errors.

So really, what’s to complain about?

The answer is that while it’s great to see these victories for the people of our state, we shouldn’t be stumbling into justice. The time has come for us to focus on a positive campaign for what we need and deserve. Enough reacting to buffoonery; it’s time to make justice happen proactively, because we know it will make Maine better. You know, the way life should be.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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