Maine Governor Paul LePage and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Christie, like the dust hanging over the Charlie Brown "Pig Pen" character.
And he can apparently heat up again, too.
In the last few weeks, Mr. LePage’s pugnaciousness has surprised even his critics, and prompted some to raise the specter of impeachment.
In a standoff that began with differences over tax policy, Mr. LePage has alienated just about the entire Legislature, including his fellow Republicans and erstwhile allies. He has called them names and gone on a veto spree, canceling a record number of bills in a flurry that would rival any Maine blizzard; in turn, the Legislature has responded with an override spree, reviving many bills unanimously.
On Monday, Mr. LePage is expected to veto the $6.7 billion, two-year state budget; the Legislature will return Tuesday, when it is expected to override the veto.
But the governmental dysfunction has become a sideshow to an even bigger controversy over Mr. LePage’s actions regarding a charter school for at-risk youths. The school had hired Mark Eves, the Democratic speaker of the House and a LePage foe, as its next president, starting Wednesday. Mr. LePage said Mr. Eves was unfit to lead the school, and threatened to withhold more than $500,000 in annual state money unless the hiring was rescinded; the school, a nonprofit fearing the loss could threaten private matching funds and lead to its closing, did so.
Mr. Eves accused the governor of blackmailing the school and threatened to sue him.
The governor’s actions have infuriated many who say he overstepped his executive authority; a group of Democrats and independents in the Legislature is researching how and whether to impeach him. Democratic leaders are taking a cautious approach, but have said nothing is off the table. An anti-LePage rally is being planned here for noon on Tuesday.
“Things have gone way off the rails, and there’s a real question about whether he’s fit to govern,” said Phil Bartlett, chairman of the state Democratic Party. “I support legislators getting to the bottom of this and making sure there’s accountability.”
Lawmakers say they are exhausted and frustrated.
For one thing, Maine’s problems, like its lagging economy, are not being addressed.
Mr. LePage declined an interview request. But Rick Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party, defended the governor as a change agent, someone who provided “a disruptive energy,” in a good way, and who had “shaken Augusta to its roots.”
The animosity dismays many who are proud of Maine’s tradition of civility and bipartisanship.
“Right now, we have an absurd, vitriolic, vindictive state of affairs,” said Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
Mr. LePage was emboldened by his election in November to a second term. While he failed to win a majority, he exceeded expectations by winning 48 percent of the vote, five percentage points ahead of his Democratic challenger. Republicans also recaptured control of the Senate, with 20 of 35 seats, and trimmed the Democratic majority in the House to 78-68 (with five independents).
“The governor could claim a mandate and had a tremendous amount of political capital, but in the last six months it has seemingly slipped away,” Mr. Katz said.
The problems began with Mr. LePage’s desire to eliminate the income tax by increasing and broadening the sales tax.
Among them was Senator Tom Saviello. “The governor is a businessman, a former C.E.O. whose method is to do what he wants,” Mr. Saviello said of Mr. LePage, who was the general manager of a 14-store discount chain. “But I have to figure out what’s best for the people of Franklin County.”
Mr. LePage also has refused to release money for bond issues approved by voters. And he declared that he would veto every bill sponsored by a Democrat until Democrats supported his proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate Maine’s income tax. Democrats said the governor had no plan for filling the $1.7 billion hole that eliminating the income tax would create.
In mid-June, after the Legislature passed a budget that did not include his tax-cut proposals, the governor showed off a Christmas tree outside his office. It was adorned with the pictures of legislators he said had loaded up the budget with wasteful spending projects, often called pork. He produced a pink plastic pig and squeaked it.
And he extended his veto threat to include any bill sponsored by Republicans, saying they had conspired with Democrats to pass the budget.
“I want to show that for five months they wasted our time, and this time I’m going to waste a little of their time,” said Mr. LePage, who went on to veto 64 line items in the budget.
Mr. Bennett, the Republican Party chairman, said Mr. LePage felt justified in taking these steps because the budget “didn’t reflect the reason he got re-elected.”
The effect has been to unify the Republicans and Democrats.
“Right now, the Legislature is united in lock step and opposed to the governor,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “They view this as an institutional fight rather than a partisan fight.”
All of this set the stage for the fury that erupted last week when Mr. LePage threatened to halt state financing to the Good Will-Hinckley charter school if it allowed Mr. Eves to become its president.
“Speaker Eves has been an ardent foe of charter schools for his entire political career; then he turns around and gets hired to run a charter school — whose board is chaired by Eves’s own State House employee — for a cushy job worth about $150,000 in total compensation,” Mr. LePage said in a statement explaining his actions.
The school said in response that the board chairman to whom the governor referred does not serve on the board that had hiring authority and had recused himself “from any even tangential involvement in considering Speaker Eves’s application.”
Mr. Bennett said that the governor had discretion over the use of the money in question and that he was well within his legal rights to withhold it.
Representative Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent, was among those who began researching impeachment proceedings last week on the grounds of abuse of authority, misuse of assets and unbecoming conduct.
“You can’t leverage state assets to intimidate a private entity,” he said.
The state’s biggest newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, has called for a House investigation of the Eves affair and said that, unless new information emerged justifying the governor’s action, he should be impeached and tried by the Senate.
So far, more than a dozen independents and Democrats have joined the impeachment effort, Mr. Evangelos said, but many more are holding back.
Mr. Katz, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said on Friday that he expected the committee and the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to begin an investigation of the episode.
He added with a sigh: “Summer can’t come soon enough.”
Correction: June 30, 2015
An article on Monday about the conflict between the governor of Maine and the State Legislature misstated, in some editions, the amount of a budget shortfall that Democratic lawmakers say would be created by a plan to eliminate the state income tax. It is $1.7 billion, not $1.7 million.