By Dave Sherwood
AUGUSTA, Maine (Reuters) - Maine lawmakers approved a $6.7 billion two-year budget on Tuesday, overriding the veto of the combative Republican governor, Paul LePage, and narrowly averting a government shutdown.
The vote took place as several dozen protesters holding signs reading "Impeach the Bully" and "Unfit to Govern" gathered outside Maine's capital building to call for the ouster of the two-term governor after LePage threatened to withhold funds from a school that had hired a political rival.
Since coming into office as a Tea Party favorite in 2011, LePage has frequently squabbled with Democrats and, more recently, fellow Republicans. On Monday he blasted the budget proposal as a "Christmas tree adorned with piggy projects."
He came under new criticism when he threatened to withhold funding from the Good Will-Hinckley school after it hired House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, as president.
LePage acknowledged making the threat, but said he did so because he felt Eves was unqualified, and had been offered the job as a political favor.
He called Eves, a chief architect of a competing budget, a "crony" and a "hack," in comments to reporters on Monday.
Eves, who was subsequently fired by the school, has threatened legal action against LePage. The school, founded in the late 19th century to educate troubled youths, four years ago reinvented itself as a charter school.
Tom Saviello, a Republican legislator, called the case a "chilling example" of potential executive over-reaching, and joined a small group of lawmakers calling for a non-partisan investigation.
The calls for impeachment have rocked Maine, a state with a long-held reputation for moderate politics.
"Democrats are trying to get rid of a governor they couldn't get rid of at the ballot box," said Maine Republican Party chairman Rick Bennett.
LePage handily won a three-way 2014 election for a second term in 2014, then unveiled a sweeping proposal to eliminate the state's income tax.
The plan didn't sit well with the Legislature, which instead negotiated a compromise budget with more modest tax cuts to override LePage's 114th veto of the year.
In a veto letter, LePage ridiculed the compromise, saying lawmakers had rebuffed his proposal because it was "too big for some of the small minds in the legislature to grasp."
Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said calls for impeachment were a symptom of a political process gone bad.
"The truth is, most voters don't care either way. They just want government to work," she said. "Right now, it’s not working."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)