House overturns LePage’s veto of ‘hungry kids’ bill, which will now become a law

AUGUSTA, Maine – A bill designed to encourage school districts to host summer nutrition programs for needy students will go into law after the House of Representatives voted Thursday to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, who called it an " irresponsible unfunded mandate" even though the program is supported with federal funds.

The bill’s opponents in the House also called it an unfunded mandate on local communities that – due to a law enacted in 2011 without LePage’s signature – can already take advantage of a federal summer lunch program.

Proponents said that Maine is taking advantage of only about 10 percent of the available federal funding, and that the bill will force school boards to make a public decision about whether to opt in or forgo the program.

Following more than an hour of debate, the House voted 92-45 to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority. All of the Democrats and independent lawmakers in the House voted to override the veto, along with four Republicans. There were 14 absences, which means the House hit the two-thirds threshold exactly. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 25-10 to override the veto. As a result, the law will go into effect 90 days following adjournment of the legislative session in April.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, would require school units where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to operate a summer food service program if the public school in the area operates a summer education or recreation program. School units that want to opt out of the program for any reason can do so with a vote of their governing body, following a public hearing process.

The bill, LD 1353, An Act to Further Reduce Student Hunger, passed unanimously last year in the Senate and by a 68-39 vote in the House. LePage vetoed it after lawmakers returned for the second session in January.

There are about 84,000 students in Maine who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs, which ranks Maine third-worst in the country, according to debate in the House and Senate.

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, is a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee, which unanimously endorsed the bill last year.

"Vetoing this bill did not save the state funds," said Kornfield. "Instead, it left federal funding on the table. … Frankly, I am surprised that the chief executive vetoed this bill because the summer program is exactly the compassion he talked about in his State of the State speech."

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, who also serves on the Education Committee, voted to sustain LePage’s veto. Johnson, who was one of only a handful of people who spoke in favor of sustaining LePage’s veto on Thursday, said the Legislature should have more trust in local communities to do what’s right.

"The fact that we have to pass a law to have adults have a conversation says something about this bill," said Johnson. "I think we should have the confidence in our citizenship to allow them to do that without passing another mandate."

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, another member of the Education Committee, said too many burdens are already being put on schools, which he said should be allowed to focus on their core mission of education.

"If we don’t look at issues like this and come up with the root of the problem and why it’s happening, then it’s a Band-Aid and we’ll be here again in a year or two to deal with it again," said McClellan. "I don’t think it’s just or fair to keep burdening our schools with these things."

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, was one of the four Republicans who voted to override the bill. The others were Joyce Maker, R-Calais, Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, and Rep. Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro.

Wilson said that growing up, he was one of the children who sometimes went without healthy meals.

"I grew up quite poor and relied on food from the food pantry. I also did receive free breakfasts and free lunches from the school and I’m thankful for that," he said. "I rise in support of overriding the veto. It’s just the right thing to do. We have an opportunity here to feed children and I feel that if we ever have that opportunity, we should go for it. … I want to see the children in my community have the ability to simply be fed."