AUGUSTA — In a statement made on a radio talk show, Gov. Paul LePage said Friday he will veto every bill that comes to his desk until the Legislature passes legislation ensuring the state's debt to its hospitals is paid.
"I'm going to lay out a little plan that I have," LePage told WVOM radio host Ric Tyler in a telephone conversation. "Every single bill that is passed now until the hospital payment is passed is going to be vetoed."
LePage's statements opened up a round of dueling news conferences at the State House on Friday as leaders in the Legislature's Democratic majority offered reaction, followed by Republicans leaders, followed by a news conference with Gerry Reid, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operation.
The heart of LePage's plan to pay back the $484 million the state and federal government owe Maine's hospitals for care provided to recipients of the state's Medicaid program, known as MaineCare, depends on the state renegotiating its contract with the company that runs the state's liquor business.
The state owes Maine hospitals about $186 million to cover its share of the cost of MaineCare. That payment would draw down an additional $298 million in federal funds, according to LePage's office. The governor has said the payment is critical to the state's economic recovery including the state's bond rating, which determines how much the state will pay in interest for big projects.
A state contract with Maine Beverage, the company currently running the state's alcohol business, expires in 2014. Reid told reporters Friday that the state was hoping to renegotiate better terms. Maine Beverage makes an estimated $45 million on the contract and paid about $8 million of that back to the state in 2012, Reid said.
LePage said he made the veto announcement last week, but Democratic leaders in the Legislature ignored him. "They can keep ignoring me, but my (veto) pens are right up there."
Democrats were quick to respond to the statement Friday.
“Today, the governor told the people of Maine that the hospitals are more important than they are," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in a prepared statement. "I disagree."
Later Jackson said, "You know, this is not a dictatorship."
In his address, LePage said the Legislature recently passed an emergency bill to seal off information on concealed handgun permits, and did it in about 24 hours. He also mentioned a bill that was moving ahead of the hospital debt legislation that would allow bars to open at 6 a.m. on Sunday, St. Patrick's Day.
"If that's more important than paying the hospitals, then I think we have a problem," LePage said. "Until they move forward on that, I'm not moving forward on any legislation. Nothing at all."
LePage even threatened to veto his own bills. He said he was given three pens recently by a citizen who provided them so the governor would have them on hand for the vetoes.
"She gave me three, because she said one's never going to get it done," LePage said.
Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, offered a sharp rebuke to the governor Friday.
"This is not governing," Goodall said in a statement. "This is not leadership. It is the type of political gamesmanship that doesn't belong here in Maine. I suspect the people of Maine want leaders, not schoolyard bullies. We have serious challenges facing our economy and we should be focused on finding solutions, not making threats."
Republicans pointed out that a bill that would extend drinking hours for St. Patrick's Day — allowing bars to open at 6 a.m. when it falls on a Sunday — moved forward before any bills addressing the hospital debt.
"It looks like they are fast-tracking bills and delaying others," Adrienne Bennett, LePage's communications director, told reporters Friday afternoon.
Bennett agreed the bill for St. Patrick's Day wasn't as complex as the hospital debt bills, but the governor's bill has been in the system for at least 45 days and wasn't scheduled for a public hearing until March 11. She said the hearing on the St. Patrick's Day bill was scheduled in 23 days.
"Clearly, Democrats can move quickly when they want to," Bennett said. "This is a bill that the governor feels will benefit the entire state, and we need to move forward on it and we need to start that public process."