AUGUSTA — GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Paul LePage are turning up the rhetoric and the political heat as they push LePage's plan to use revenue from the state's liquor business to pay back $484 million the state owes to 39 Maine hospitals.
LePage on Friday will bring his message to Lewiston-Auburn, where he will hold a news conference at a local liquor store. He will then visit Central Maine Medical Center, part of Central Maine Healthcare, to which the state owes about $51 million.
The debt is owed for services Maine hospitals have provided under the state's MaineCare program, which is funded by state and federal Medicaid money.
On Friday, LePage will pitch his plan, which would use profits from the state's wholesale liquor business to pay the debt service on $186 million of privately backed revenue bonds, essentially a loan to the state. That money would go directly to the hospitals and force a federal match of $298 million.
Republicans and the LePage administration have insisted it's important to pay the hospitals sooner rather than later as the matching funds from the federal government are expected to decrease over time.
On Wednesday, LePage reiterated his message that he wouldn't sign any bills into law until the Legislature does something about the state's health care debt.
While several bills were on their way to the governor's desk, none had arrived as of Thursday, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
The Maine Republican Party this week released a video clip from 2008 when Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said, "I think we might have to stop paying the hospitals . . ." Alfond, now the Senate president, was speaking about an $800 million state budget shortfall lawmakers were dealing with at the time.
In a radio interview with WGAN on Wednesday, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rich Cebra said the video shows Democrats have never been serious about paying off the state's debt.
"This video is just one more piece of evidence that Maine's Democratic leadership has never been serious about paying off the hospital debt," said Cebra, a former state representative from Naples. "This video is all the explanation the people of Maine need to see how we got to this point. Is it any surprise that the Democratic leadership is trying to avoid paying the hospitals now?"
Leaders in the Democratic majority continued to insist that they want to pay off the state's hospitals.
On Thursday, they renewed their call for LePage to release more than $100 million in general obligation bonds that Maine voters approved in the fall of 2011. The release of those bonds, essentially loans to the state, would trigger $296 million in matching funds from the federal government.
The bonds would be used for a variety of projects around the state, including port expansion, development to airport improvements and upgrades for many of the state's ailing roads and bridges.
LePage has said he would not authorize the bonds until lawmakers agree on a plan to pay off the hospital debt.
"The governor has essentially given the Legislature and the people of Maine a ransom note: 'Pass my liquor bill, and I will release the bonds,'" said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. He said LePage and other Republicans in the Legislature have said the bonds would create jobs, but they continue to blame Democrats for the delay of the release.
"They admit the bonds will create economic opportunity for the state, put people back to work, and they admit these jobs that will be triggered as a result of releasing the bonds will be good for our economy," Goodall said. "But what they are not telling you is that those bonds could be released today; in fact, the last round of bonds could have been released 120 days ago."
Republicans disagreed and said that until the state settles its outstanding and massive debt with its hospitals, it risks jeopardizing its bond rating, which essentially determines how much the state pays in interest when it borrows.
"The governor's plan is a comprehensive approach that not only pays off the hospital debt and gets it off the books, but it allows us to take on more debt in the form of bonds," Bennett said.
Bennett said LePage's plan also directs some of the liquor profits to clean water projects, transportation projects and the state's reserve accounts, which are down to $4 million. "He's looking for a better deal," Bennett said.
Republican leaders in the Legislature also responded to Democrats on Thursday.
"We’ve been here before; the governor has already said that he’ll issue these bonds, but we must pay our bills before taking on new debt," said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
Assistant House Minority Leader Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, said if the governor is holding the bonds hostage, then Democrats are holding the payments to hospitals hostage.
"The difference is, Republicans want a trade-off and the Democrats don’t," Willette said. "We want to pay the hospitals and issue the bonds."
LePage is expected to speak to the media about his plan during a news conference at 9 a.m. Friday at Roopers Beverage and Redemption on Main Street in Auburn.
After the conference, the governor will visit CMMC to tour the facility and meet with hospital staff and patients.