Daily Brief: Are Obama and LePage veto soul mates?

Good morning from Augusta, where everyone today is turning their attention to faraway Bald Mountain, more than 200 miles north in the heart of Aroostook County. 

It’s far removed from the State House, but the mountain — said to contain vast deposits of copper and zinc — has been the focus of lawmakers for the past three years. J.D. Irving Ltd., the behemoth New Brunswick company and largest landowner in Maine, wants to mine its 500-acre parcel on Bald Mountain, but needs state mining rules changed before it can do so. 

But a deal on new rules has been out of reach for lawmakers under pressure from environmental groups who oppose expanded mining in Maine and Gov. Paul LePage and his Department of Environmental Protection, who want to green light Irving’s project. 

What’s happened before will happen again today during a public hearing on the latest proposal from the DEP — a carbon copy of last year’s failed plan — which will be held by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee. 

For more background, see Chris Cousins’ look ahead at the debate here, and the Wall Street Journal’s view from afar, here

Also on deck for Wednesday are two bills on charter school funding in the Education Committee, a voter ID law in Veterans and Legal Affairs and a plan to give Mainers a tax credit for turnpike tolls in Taxation. — Mario Moretto.

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Obama, LePage vetoes: A comparison

Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed his first veto of the new Republican-controlled Congress, fulfilling his promise to block the GOP-backed Keystone XL pipeline.

In his veto message, Obama said nothing about the merits or flaws of the pipeline. Instead, he said he was nixing the bill because it “conflicts with established executive branch procedures.” In other words, he wanted to prevent Congress from inserting itself into policymaking that he believes is under the sole purview of the president. He’s making an argument for separation of powers. Call this the “get your nose out of my business” veto.

Sound familiar?

That was a common theme — explicit or implicit — in many of Gov. Paul LePage’s vetoes during the Democrat-controlled 126th Legislature.

For example, LePage last year vetoed LD 1254,  bill that would have encouraged state agencies and schools to buy local foods, saying it was “incongruent with the constitutional principal of separation of powers” because such food purchases were an executive branch function.

Or this one, when he vetoed LD 1281, which would have directed his administration to study a proposal to license recreational therapists: “Studies utilizing legislative staff are within your purview and I will not second-guess those. However, when a bill directs executive departments to undertake studies on subjects we do not support, I will return them to your desk.”

Concerns over separation of powers are serious ones, and I don’t want to overplay the similarities between the governor and the president (they’re few and far between). But LePage, with about 180 vetoes to his name, has a lot more experience than Obama, who’s used his veto pen just three times. So maybe, just maybe, Obama is taking a page from LePage.– Mario Moretto.

The state pastime is …

… choosing symbols that represent the state. Or at least so it seems.

Legislators this week balked at a plan to name the Labrador Retriever the “state dog,” and who could forget the flap over whether the blueberry or whoopie pie should be the “state treat”? In the end, a compromise was reached.

On Wednesday, legislators will take up two more consequential bills of great importance to Maine people when the State and Local Government Committee holds public hearings on whether to declare the Friendship Sloop as the official state maritime symbol and maple syrup the official “state sweetener.”

There’s a whole section of Maine law dedicated to this stuff. Most schoolchildren in Maine know the state motto is “Dirigo,” and the state bird the chickadee. Those and other more popular state symbols were chosen mostly in the early 20th century. But there’s also a state soil (“Chesuncook,” it’s called) and state herb (wintergreen), both named by the Legislature in 1999. In 2005, lawmakers declared Moxie the state soft drink.

It’s worth noting the sponsor of the maple syrup bill, Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, is a maple syrup producer. An initial look at the biography of Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, the sponsor of the Friendship sloop bill, didn’t turn up any potential financial gain from the sailboat’s designation as a state symbol. — Mario Moretto

Reading list

Bananas at the capitol

IMG_1514It was not a great news day for the University of Maine System, which saw Standard & Poor’s downgrade the seven-school system’s credit outlook to “negative,” citing management turmoil and declining enrollment.

But that didn’t seem to dampen the mood in the State House Hall of Flags, where the system’s flagship school in Orono celebrated its 150th birthday. Bananas the Bear, the school’s mascot, was arguably the most popular guy in Augusta Tuesday, getting his photo taken with lawmakers, security personnel, visitors and even this reporter (a proud UMaine alum). Above, the Legislature’s doctor for the day, James Hildebrand from Orono, poses for his own snapshot. — 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.