AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage handed down an instant veto Thursday, minutes after the Senate gave final passage to a bill that links repayment of Maine’s hospital debt to an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
LePage, during an impromptu appearance in the State House Hall of Flags, also laid out the text for a new bill he plans to submit to the Legislature that authorizes the state to repay its share of the $484 million debt to 39 hospitals. Republican legislators signed on as co-sponsors after LePage finished reading his veto letter.
“Democrat leadership has spent the past week forcing this bill through the legislative process, over the objections of both Republicans and Democrats alike,” the veto letter reads. “This unadulterated partisanship tied two different issues together in a quest to force welfare expansion upon the Maine people. I have said all along this bill would receive a veto when it reached my desk, so this letter should be no surprise.”
LePage also wrote in his letter that he has directed State Treasurer Neria Douglass to ready $105 million in voter-approved bonds to be released if lawmakers pass the hospital debt repayment plan. LePage has said since January he’ll release those bonds once the hospital debt is resolved.
“The sad part of this veto is the simple fact that all of us have agreed paying our bills is the fiscally responsible thing to do,” LePage’s veto letter reads. “Additionally, the bipartisan work of the committees has recognized my original plan is the best way to do it.”
LePage proposes to issue a revenue bond to repay the hospital debt. The bond would be backed by future revenues from a renegotiated state wholesale liquor contract.
During Senate debate Thursday morning, Democrats repeated that the state has a moral imperative to expand health insurance coverage to tens of thousands of low-income Maine residents. Republicans repeated that lawmakers shouldn’t be linking Medicaid expansion and repayment for the state’s hospitals.
“The path to paying the hospitals is before us,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. “If we cannot proceed down it together, we will have to seek another path, but I would argue the best choice is for us to take it today.”
Senate debate was also colored by personal stories senators told about their constituents and about themselves.
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, read a list of names of people who lack health insurance she has met during the past year.
“I’ve got pages of this,” Lachowicz said. “I could go on.”
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he won’t consider expanding Medicaid to about 50,000 adults without children until the state is able to provide Medicaid to nearly 300 people with intellectual disabilities who have been on a waiting list for services.
“I know about this. I have one of them in my home,” Burns said. “Until we address that issue, I’ll continue to stand in the way of expansion for relatively able-bodied people.”
An increasingly tense State House atmosphere also spilled over into Senate debate Thursday, which took place as LePage accused Democratic legislative leaders of censoring him by ordering him to remove a television posted outside his office. The specter of LePage’s veto hung over the debate.
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said lawmakers should move ahead with expanding Medicaid although LePage’s administration remains in discussions about expansion possibilities with federal officials. Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew in March asked federal officials to fully fund a Medicaid expansion in Maine for 10 years when the federal health care reform law provides for three years worth of full funding for new Medicaid recipients.
“The idea that slowing this down, that our chief executive is going to negotiate a better deal, that’s incredible to me,” Jackson, the assistant Senate Democratic leader, said. “If I was looking for someone to sell me a TV, maybe I would go to the chief executive.”
Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, said the state should be wary of expanding Medicaid. The program’s costs could exceed expectations, he said.
“This is an expansion to 70,000 Mainers. It’s huge,” he said. “We cannot go into it lightly. This is not going to be free. This will cost us money.”
In Maine, about 50,000 adults without children would gain Medicaid coverage if the state opts to expand, according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review. If the state chooses not to expand, about 25,000 childless adults and parents would lose their Medicaid coverage on Jan. 1, 2014.
Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would pay 100 percent of costs for new Medicaid recipients for three years starting Jan. 1, 2014. That 100 percent rate would gradually fall to 90 percent by 2020 and the state would have to make up the remaining share.
Democrats were expected to describe their next procedural steps Thursday afternoon after the bill’s passage in the House and Senate. Since the bills passed in largely party-line votes, Democrats don’t currently have enough votes to override a LePage veto.
Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport plans to push his case this afternoon to introduce a separate bill that attempts to do what Republicans in the House and Senate failed to accomplish Tuesday: set up a study commission to examine the state’s options for expanding Medicaid.
Fredette will attempt to convince legislative leadership to accept his after-deadline bill during a Legislative Council meeting Thursday afternoon. The 10-member Legislative Council has six Democrats and four Republicans.