AUGUSTA — Capping this year’s session, legislators on Thursday overturned Gov. Paul LePage‘s veto of a teacher training bill and upheld three other vetoes issued by the governor.
The House and Senate both cleared the two-thirds majority threshold to push through scholarships for teachers seeking National Board Certification and salary stipends for those who do.
Meanwhile, the Senate also voted in favor of a $20 million bond proposal to fund research and development investments, which was promoted as a job-creating measure. The House, however, sustained a veto of the bond proposal, as well as vetoes of bills that limited the Maine Government Facilities Authority’s borrowing powers and allowed fraternal and veterans’ organizations to operate slot machines.
The bond proposal would have sent voters a request to borrow $20 million for the Maine Technology Asset Fund, a competitive awards program that supports capital improvements for research and development projects.
The Senate voted to override LePage’s veto by 29-6, but the House vote was 88-53, falling short of the threshold of 94 votes. The House previously voted 99-41 in favor of the bond, but 13 Republicans changed positions.
Echoing the objections in LePage’s veto message, Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said many Republicans had concerns about the state borrowing more money and where the awards go.
“Some of that money doesn’t always find its way to private industry, and in fact it’s used by start-up companies and nonprofit organizations that compete with private enterprises that are ongoing,” said Nutting, who previously voted for the bond proposal and four others that LePage allowed to go to voters for approval.
Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, said policymakers need to make research and development a priority in the general fund budget rather than issuing bonds.
“I voted no on every bond not because I don’t want all these wonderful things, but because we are in a dire financial situation, and borrowing — with interest — on taxpayer dollars is irresponsible,” Prescott said.
House Democratic leader Emily Cain of Orono said on the House floor that it is not a coincidence that Maine is last in the country for research and development investment and last in personal income growth.
“This is nothing short of a vote against jobs and future economic development,” Cain said in a prepared statement.
Bill sponsor Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, said he was disappointed the House sustained the veto, but a similar bond package will come back in the next Legislature.
“It’s important to the long-term growth of our economy that we recognize there’s a role for public policymakers to play in funding research in a way that allows for innovation and ultimately the growth of our businesses,” Rector said. “It was a disappointment today, but we live to fight another day.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor wants to improve the return on investment of the award program by focusing more on the private sector and on the commercialization phase.
‘Kids before politics’
LePage’s veto of the teacher training bill caused less controversy among Legislators, who voted 26-9 in the Senate and 129-12 in the House to override.
The bill, L.D. 1781, establishes a scholarship fund for public school and private town academy teachers applying to become National Board Certified, which costs $2,500 and can take up to three years. It also increases to $2,500 a state stipend for teachers are board-certified.
The bill received no opposition in the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee or on the floors of the House and Senate, and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen supported it.
But LePage vetoed the bill, calling it a Band-Aid and accusing the Maine Education Association of devoting more attention to politics than improving teacher quality, including members’ vote to endorse the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum. A small smiley face appears next to the signature on his veto message.
A handful of legislators spoke in favor of overriding the teacher training veto on Thursday, and none spoke in opposition.
Education committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said that up until Thursday morning, he was inclined to sustain the veto. He said he probably opened himself to criticism by changing his mind and encouraging other senators to override.
He said he believed LePage vetoed the bill to spur discussion of a broader effort to help teachers improve, but the administration and the teachers union are “at loggerheads.”
“The MEA has committed to me this morning to come to the table for honest discussions,” Langley said. “We do have to move forward, we have to work together, we have to put the best interests of our children first. This means that all sides have to come to the table with open minds.”
MEA President Chris Galgay said he was grateful Langley stood up for the program, and he believed it swayed the Senate, which voted before the House.
“It was nice to see the Legislature put educators and kids before politics,” Galgay said.
Bill sponsor and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said legislators made their decision based on the demonstrated effectiveness of National Board Certified teachers.
“I’m proud of the Legislature for doing that, overriding the governor’s veto and helping make sure that every classroom has an effective teacher,” Alfond said.
Bennett said LePage supports National Board Certification and will keep pushing MEA to do more to train teachers.
LePage has repeatedly said that he will increase funding for teacher development if MEA will match it dollar for dollar. MEA does offer some support for training, but officials say that is not the union’s role.
“That’s the union’s prerogative,” Bennett said. “That’s not going to stop him from pressing the union to do what he thinks is best for students.”
She said LePage had important reasons for his other vetoes and was glad the Legislature sustained them.
Didn’t leave House
Two bills that originated in the House failed override votes there, so they never went to the Senate for reconsideration.
One bill, L.D. 1469, would have allowed fraternal and veterans’ organizations to operate up to five slot machines each as a way to raise money. The House voted 80-61 to override, falling short of the 94 votes needed for a two-thirds majority.
House Democrats did not take a formal position on the bill, and Nutting said Republicans also were divided, wanting to support nonprofit organizations but cautious about expanding gambling without voter approval.
The vote on another bill, L.D. 807, was divided closer to party lines, with many Republicans voting to override. The motion failed 63-77.
The bill would have limited the ability of the Maine Government Facilities Authority to borrow without voter approval, allowing it to do so only for court projects.
LePage objected to singling out courts, but Nutting said the bill was important because it reversed the expansion of the authority’s powers, which originally applied only to courts.