Senate overrides LePage veto of bill to provide summer food for free, reduced lunch students

AUGUSTA, Maine – The Senate voted on Tuesday to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage of a bill that would require schools in poor communities to operate a summer nutrition program for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The Senate voted 25-10 to override the veto, which constitutes the required two-thirds majority to nullify the veto. The measure now moves to the House, which also must achieve a two-thirds majority to override the veto.

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.

Alfond said there are 84,000 students in Maine who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, which ranks the state as third-worst in the country in that regard. Some 70,000 of those students go hungry in the summer, according to Alfond.

"That’s a list that we shouldn’t be on," said Alfond, who was one of several Senate Democrats to voice support for the bill on Tuesday. "And it’s a ranking that quite frankly I am ashamed of. … This bill is more than just a bill. It’s a pledge for all of us in the Legislature, a commitment to the youngest and most precious assets in our state, our children."

Arguing in favor of a vote to sustain LePage’s veto, Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said student hunger is an issue that should be dealt with at the local level.

"This bill does not feed a single child," said Thibodeau. "There’s nothing that prevents a school district from stepping forward and creating a program. … Each and every one of you should be reaching out to the members of your school board."

Sen Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, was one of the Republicans who voted with Democrats to override the veto. He said he supported it because too many families in northern Maine are struggling due to the loss of thousands of jobs in recent decades.

"I’m all in favor of helping kids during the summertime but the bigger issue we should be working on is how to get those jobs in here," said Sherman. "We just don’t seem to be making that a priority."

In his Jan. 10 veto letter, LePage expressed concerns about the nutrition of students but called the bill "an irresponsible unfunded mandate" that is unnecessary because municipalities can already opt into a summer school lunch program; if they wish.

"It directs schools to impose a program without providing the funding," wrote LePage. "This is the very problem that we see arise time and time again between the state and local government and I do not support it."

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, voiced strong support for the bill, which she said her committee unanimously endorsed after considerable negotiations last year. She said one in five Maine children are nutritionally challenged.

"We worked hard to craft a bill that helps our communities address hunger in their children while at the same time remaining sensitive to the fact that we do not like as a Legislature to place mandates on our communities," said Millett. "I’m particularly troubled by its adverse impact on our children’s success in school and thus later in life. Hunger is one of the most significant roadblocks to learning."

All of the Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth voted in favor, along with Sherman and Republican Sens. David Burns of Whiting, Patrick Flood of Winthrop, Brian Langley of Ellsworth and Tom Saviello of Wilton.

The fate of the bill now rests with the House of Representatives, which will consider an override vote in the coming days.