AUGUSTA — A line-item veto for Maine governors, an idea often proposed but rejected, is gathering momentum, with growing support from lawmakers of both parties and independent Gov. Angus S. King.
“I recognize there are people who have skepticism about the line-item veto, but I think it is a moderate and reasonable proposal,” Sen. Sean Faircloth, D-Bangor, told the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.
Faircloth is sponsoring one of four bills calling for a line-item veto for Maine governors.
Maine is one of only seven states without a line-item veto, which gives governors the power to veto specific parts of a state budget without vetoing the entire budget.
The other state governors without such power are Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont.
In Washington, a similar move is under way. Both houses of Congress, led by Republican majorities, have passed a line-item veto. It awaits the signature of President Clinton. Former President Ronald Reagan often pleaded with a Democratic Congress for line-item veto power.
Still, the Maine Legislature contains lawmakers reluctant to give up what they view as the Legislature’s sole responsibility for approving spending levels.
Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland, asked why King needed a line-item veto when he had yet to approve his first two-year budget as governor.
Faircloth, whose bill has King’s backing, said: “Don’t think of this as something for Angus King, but something that will last 100 or 200 years. I believe if we pass the line-item veto, it will be rarely used and should be rarely used. It is crafted in such a way that it doesn’t alter the fundamental balance of power.”
But Rep. Ruth Joseph, D-Waterville, said, “I feel the line-item veto does alter the balance of power.”
As a constitutional amendment, a line-item veto bill would first have to win two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature, then go to voters in referendum for ratification.
Faircloth’s bill would allow governors to replace line spending items in a budget bill with lesser amounts of spending, down to zero. The Legislature would have to vote separately on each vetoed line, and a simple majority could overturn the veto. Conventional vetoes, of entire bills, require a two-thirds vote to be overridden.
Of 11 co-sponsors of the Faircloth bill, eight are members of the Appropriations Committee, but there were still some skeptics on the panel.
Reassuring lawmakers they wouldn’t give up too much bargaining power with a line-item veto, Faircloth said, “I don’t think it would help the governor if he used the line-item veto to double-cross this committee or double-cross the Legislature.”
Later Faircloth said Arkansas and Tennessee have used line-item vetoes virtually identical to the one proposed in his bill for about 100 years without any problems.
Kay Rand, King’s legislative director, said lawmakers shouldn’t think about a line-item veto benefiting King, but as a long-term measure.
“It’s not for him personally,” Rand said. “He believes this is a very important fiscal tool. It is an accountability tool. There can’t be any finger-pointing. With the line-item veto, the chief executive can’t dodge responsibility for the budget.
“If this power were given to him, he would not use it cavalierly. He would hope not to use it at all,” Rand said.
“Putting together a budget is not an easy process and it doesn’t hurt to have a second look.”
Rand cited a study that said states with line-item vetoes generally had lower budget deficits than states without line-item vetos.
Edward Gorham, secretary-treasurer of the Maine AFL-CIO, gave a ringing historical argument as to why Maine should stay away from the line-item veto.
“I’m not swayed by the arguments that 43 or 44 other states have line-item vetoes,” Gorham said. “Here in Maine, we have jealously guarded the power of the Legislature. … There is no single issue in the 175-year history of this state that requires us to make this change.
“There has not been a budget that ultimately did not make it through the Legislature,” Gorham said.
The other line-item veto bills vary only slightly from Faircloth’s. Two would require a two-thirds vote to override the veto. And two would extend the line-item veto to all bills that include state spending.