AUGUSTA — Even though Gov. Paul LePage's office made it clear Wednesday he'll veto a bill to pay off a $484 million debt to Maine hospitals because of an amendment to expand Medicaid, Democrats professed hope the Republican governor will relent and considered passage a victory.
The House gave the bill final approval by an 87-56 vote on Wednesday, setting it up for a likely Senate enactment vote on Thursday before the bill can be sent to LePage.
But the governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said she anticipates a veto if the bill reaches LePage's desk in its current form.
As approved by the Democratic-majority Legislature, the bill has three components: paying off Maine's $484 million debt to the state's hospitals, renegotiating the state's liquor-sales contract to bring in money to pay the $186 million state share of the debt, and expanding Medicaid to roughly 70,000 more Maine residents.
LePage and the Republicans strongly object to the third part, saying Medicaid expansion wasn't analyzed sufficiently and should be considered separately. A veto of the bill, however, endangers the hospital-payment portions of the bill, which are top priorities of the governor's.
"If (Medicaid and the hospital debt) are tied together, he'll veto it," Bennett said. "It makes absolutely no strategic sense for the Democrats to do this."
Democrats refused to be flustered by the veto talk and expressed hope the governor would reconsider.
"I think the question that needs to be asked is why isn't the governor going to sign this bill," said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Haven. "And if the governor follows through on his veto threat, why is the governor not following through on his major legislative initiative of this session, and that is paying the hospitals."
Said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland: "I think that every Republican and the governor, hopefully will take a step back, forget about all of the talking points, and think about the people of this state, who are going to be helped by accepting these federal funds. We're heard story after story about thousands of people in every district ... every one of us have people (whose) lives are on the line."
In a letter to the two leaders Monday, the governor expressed hope they would "consider the direction of Maine's welfare system," adding, "We should not be spending Mainers' hard-earned money to feed a generational dependency on government."
LePage attached a letter from a former Army paratrooper who was discharged with 90 percent disability because of an accident but still chooses to work despite eligibility for benefits. The 30-year-old veteran, Dustin Heath, told the governor he sees people violating government-benefit programs like food stamps and "I see people not working living better than I do."
"I'm not dissing people who need it," Heath told The Associated Press. But he said government aid should be reserved for people who are truly in need.
During debate on Medicaid expansion, Democrats sought to debunk assertions of routine cheating on government benefits, citing examples of working people whose Medicaid coverage lets them avoid having to seek medical care in hospital emergency rooms, where it is more expensive and adds to health care costs borne to a large degree by taxpayers.
As of Wednesday, neither Democratic leaders nor the administration was offering an alternative route should the hospital bill be vetoed.
But Sen. John Tuttle, a Sanford Democrat and co-chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said one possibility would be separate hospital debt and Medicaid proposals in the still-unfinished state budget. Tuttle also said the issue, if left unsettled, could lead to a special legislative session.
For now, he said, "I like the process to work itself out."