LePage: DHHS cuts required to keep safety net, schools open

LEWISTON — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday fielded some tough questions from a full audience during his Capitol for a Day event at the Green Ladle restaurant.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Gov. Paul LePage listens to Newfab Inc. owner and President Chip Roche, left, as he explains the products made at the Auburn metal fabricating facility during a "Capitol for a Day" tour Thursday. He was joined by Bruce Tisdale, right, president of Mountain Machine Works and Mountain Fluid Power.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for Gov. Paul LePage, holds the microphone for Les Gibson of Sabattus as he praises the governor on his proposed budget cuts during a town-hall-style meeting in Lewiston on Thursday.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Edward Hurley of Lewiston listens as Gov. Paul LePage answers Hurley's question about bringing jobs to the Lewiston-Auburn area. "We can't attract new businesses with our energy costs," LePage said.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Surrounded by his Cabinet members, Gov. Paul LePage answers questions at a town-hall-style meeting in Lewiston on Thursday. The governor toured the area earlier in the day as part of the Capitol for a Day program.

The toughest question, however, came from one of the people the governor believes he's trying to help.

The governor parried inquiries from opponents wearing 61-percent stickers, members of the group Maine's Majority. In doing so, LePage reiterated his administration's commitment to a new energy policy and his desire to fold quasi-governmental agencies into state government. He also indicated that he was soon going to roll out a modified school-choice proposal.

LePage appeared comfortable when discussing those issues. However, he had more trouble when Lee Myles took the microphone toward the end of the 90-minute question-and-answer session.

Myles, CEO of St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, first thanked the governor for attempting to repay the state's debt to the hospitals. But Myles had some pointed criticism of LePage's controversial budget proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Myles, who runs one of the largest employers in the Lewiston-Auburn area, said the governor's proposed reductions in Medicaid was a "nuke approach" that would remove health insurance for thousands of Mainers. The result, Myles said, was increased emergency room use that would have a $6 million impact on St. Mary's. 

"I applaud your efforts to address Medicaid," Myles said. "But this isn't just a fiscal issue. It's a moral issue."

He added, "You didn't create this crisis, nor did the Republicans or the Democrats."

LePage told Myles he had no choice; federal Medicaid reimbursement rates were dropping. The state, he said, was broke.

"We're spending fourth-quarter money and we're in the third quarter," LePage said. "Come April 1st, we're going to run out of money."

LePage, describing the DHHS budget gap as a "runaway train," told the audience that if the Legislature didn't ratify his proposed budget he would be forced to close the state's schools.

The governor has floated that scenario before, although it's unclear what authority he has to take such a measure. Nonetheless, the comment illustrates the urgency that the governor has attached to the DHHS budget, by far the most contentious issue he's faced since taking office last year.

The DHHS cuts were on the mind of the audience, which mostly comprised the governor's supporters. About a third of attendees were opponents.

The Medicaid cuts dominated the questions. LePage defended his budget, saying his initiative wasn't a "cutting proposal," but one that attempted to fix structural issues in the system. 

The nature of the DHHS shortfall remains a point of contention between the administration and Democrats, who speculate that the governor has amplified the crisis to advance a political agenda. So far, independent analysts have been unable to determine how much of the gap is one-time and how much is structural.

LePage on Thursday said some Democrats weren't being truthful when they claimed he was overstating the funding gap. The crisis, he said, was real. He said Democrats' expansion of Medicaid offerings and eligibility requirements made it so Mainers were shunning private insurance in favor of publicly funded health care.

The governor also repeated the claim that the DHHS budget gap was the result of ballooning enrollment. Democrats, meanwhile, cite the administration's own analysis of the shortfall, which shows that DHHS officials under-budgeted for some programs and failed to account for the loss of federal funds.

Several audience members asked the governor what his plan was for those who would be left without health insurance.

LePage acknowledged that hospitals would see increased emergency room visits. However, he said he was working on a proposal that would require an individual to register with a primary care physician after his first emergency room visit. He added that changes in the state's insurance laws would make private insurance more affordable to some of those who would be left without health care if his budget passes.

The governor also defended the tax-cut package he signed into law last session. While critics said that the cuts benefit the wealthy, LePage stressed the package benefited all Mainers, including about 70,000 of the poorest residents in the state.

"I'm proud of (the tax cuts); I'm not ashamed of it," he said.

He added, "(The tax cuts) have nothing to do with the structural problems the state is facing now."

LePage acknowledged that the cuts would be painful. However, he rejected what he described as "emotional arguments about welfare," which he said, were "inappropriate."

"We need a safety net that we can depend on," he said.

The governor also indicated that he favored looking at other reforms for public assistance. He said that currently, personal income is the only eligibility requirement to receive benefits. LePage said an individual's assets should also be a factor.

The governor's comments were well-received by the majority of the audience, which often erupted in loud applause.

However, opponents took issue with the governor's remarks.

Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, said it was no wonder that DHHS can't give lawmakers a true assessment of the shortfall when "the boss keeps changing his story every day."

Carey said LePage was attempting "to bully the Legislature" into passing his budget.

"First it was fraud, then it was people flocking to the state to get welfare," Carey said. "Now he's holding Maine school students hostage. It's his timetable, his terms, his numbers."

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Jacqueline Libby DeLasso's picture

Grrr on Governors latest bunch of smoke blowing

First I agree with Mike Carey!!!!
I may get flack but I do not care..I think the constitution gives me the right to freedom of speech! Oh yeah and I am an American, that also served in the Armed Forces, to protect, and give the right for folks to say what they want to!

Uh Huh..as I previously stated...Jack wagon!!!! lets get another blowhard in office, that makes the promises, blames the former politicians for the financial condition of our state, then turns around and is no dang better than his predecessors. Hey, close schools then watch good kids really get screwed out of an education...bad enough the special needs consumers are suffering because of the damn cutbacks. Our seniors are suffering, however if we could not speak English, you damn sure can bet we would be allright, we would have jobs, not worry about where the next meal is coming from, oh yeah and have the meds and such paid for by our taxes, that are so flipping high arghhhhh!...line the politicians pockets while they try to blow smoke up our posteriors..Don't get me started.. too late damage done, poison pen is hot! I can not figure why we are in dire financial straits when the taxes that are being implemented are robbing us dry! I think we all should move to a foreign country learn another language then come back here..hmm ya think! not trying to be angry at the folks that come here, but it is what it is. Just my opinion. hmm.

Bob Woodbury's picture

Atta boy, gov...

If the governor can't get the elderly, he'll get the kids. Except the rich kids, of course. They'll be in private schools. Go get 'em, gov.

Jason Theriault's picture

Obviously, Kids can't vote.

Every cut he has proposed has been to programs for Kids. That bugs me alot. If Maine is going to have a future, we need to invest in kids. We already have enough trouble in this state to attract young couple. You start slashing programs, and forget it. I understand cuts have to be made, but that they are all to kids programs seems like he is pandering to seniors.

Bob Woodbury's picture

I agree...

...with everything except your statement about pandering to seniors. It cutting medical treatment for 65,000 seniors pandering?

DONALD FERLAND's picture

he isn't cutting medicaid for

he isn't cutting medicaid for 65,000 seniors....the majority of they are single people without children. Although the seniors have been threatened with loss of nursing homes and assisted living but not to the extent of 65,000 of them. But I do agree....he is a blow hard.

Jeff Fecteau's picture

Interesting

This is very interesting. During Trying Economic Times, Some Small Towns Turn To Their Own Currency.
http://consumerist.com/2012/01/to-prepare-against-economic-downturn-some...

Doreen Sheive's picture

LePage being LePage

It is so much garbage. LePage is going to close schools -- no, he isn't. One does not have anything to do with the other. As for DHHS spending fourth quarter money, that is not ususual. Usually there is a supplemental budget done to cover the shortfall. That doesn't mean that taxes are increased. Also, his idea that people who lose the health coverage will have to register with a primary physician after one visit to the emergency room, doesn't make any sense. First of all, these people can's afford a doctor. Secondly, where are all these doctors going to come from who are not going to get paid and who already have full patient loads. The State of Maine doesn't have clinics like other states do, so there will be no place for these people to get health care. LePage is very shortsighted and unrealistic. And, his threats are meaningless. And, if he cares so much about education why is he trying to cut millions of dollars in headstart funds?

Dave S. Simpson's picture

Something needs to give.....

Closing schools? Not sure that is even legal. My concern as a tax paying citizen (and one that is NOT politically savvy) goes beyond the budget and the proposed cuts (which I do not agree with with respect to DHHS) is LePage's leadership. He "leads" by utilizing threats (to our most vulnerable citizens), he blames (democrats and previous administrations)constantly and seems to do little or nothing to encourage folks to get on the same page with a clearly defined vision. I have never met the man but at times his behavior closely resembles that of a two year old having a tantrum. At times of crisis (which Maine clearly is in the throws of), might it not be more effective if our leader worked with some enthusiasm to assure Maine people that we're all in this together....instead of constantly threatening? I feel at times like these the Governor could be more effective if he faciltated more energy around possibilities instead of the impending doom he references daily.

CLAIRE GAMACHE's picture

Like nailing jello to the wall

Getting a straight story out of this administration is like trying to nail a glob of jello to the wall. He says the government is broke and he is spending 4th quarter money in the 3rd quarter but last month his budget director announced the budget was in the black so far. He says he is creating jobs but how can creating a six million dollar loss for St. Mary's not result in a bunch of lay-offs there and throughout the health care industry? He wants to put in a fifth year of high school one day but now he is threatening to close the schools. Why would that be his first priority? Why not close down the roads? Last month he said he could fix the whole thing if he was given control of MSHA. He alluded to that again last night. Why can't he just work with them? He says the DHHS budget is way out of control due to new applicants and increases in spending when his own budget analyses shows a small amount of new applicants and very little spending increase in the last 8 years and that the problem is the reduction in federal stimulus funds which was entirely forseeable before his tax cuts. Once, just once, I wish this guy would get his story straight.

ANTHONY NAZAR's picture

It's called blackmail..

...and, it's yet another reason Maine needs a recall option for elected officials. There needs to be a Constitutional amendment with safeguards built in to make sure it's not just a "get even" r sour grapes response to losing an election - but it needs to be there when the official in question is so out of control, so ego driven, that it's his way or the highway.

Paul LePage is also proof why success in business is NOT a predictor of the ability to govern. LePage is trying to govern as though his is the last word.

We might have had the opportunity to consider Cynthis Dill's recall proposal but for Debra Plowden putting a roadblock on it. Plowden is another example of Republican overreach.

Of course, most politicians are terrified of the recall option. For them, caring what constituents say is a bother that should only become of interest just prior to elections.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Unbelievable

Its almost sad. We have alot of problems in this state. These problems have been around since I moved to Maine thirty years ago. Education is one of the largest problems we face. With out it or enough of it will be disasterous.Maine already has a huge dropout rate. That mentality goes back to the days when kids dropped out of school and went to work in the mills. Good pay, several generations of relatives already working there was an automatic job.
Well the mills are gone, and like it or not so are the jobs. Higher more workforce orientated education is needed.
So when I hear our illustrious govoner declare that he will close the schools to pay for his pipe dreams, it makes me sick. I guess it reflects his educational mentality.

Tim McClure's picture

Governor's Education Plan

The Governor acknowledged last night that our school are performing poorly and sees a need for students to get more practical education including vocational training. He stressed the need for technical competency in our students. He also repeated his desire to make high school a five year program. This story did not cover that aspect of the town hall meeting. He mentioned closing school as a last resort to keep critical services such as nursing homes open.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

Tim are you saying that our

Tim are you saying that our schools are not a critical service? It was also mentioned last night that Lewiston is one of the most innovative school systems in the state and yet all Lewiston schools are failing to meet standards. Sounds more like an oxymoron if you ask me.

Tim McClure's picture

critical service

When it comes to a nursing home (or medical services) shutting down over a school shutting down, the nursing home wins. Lives are at stake. When a school closes down, a child is inconvenienced and can catch up later. And I don't think the governor was eluding to a school shutdown as being permanent.

I'm not familiar with Lewiston school system. I can tell you when my sons were in public schools, they (the schools) left a lot to be desired. We home schooled our oldest son for middle school. That is how bad we thought it was.

DONALD FERLAND's picture

I think LePage is blowing

I think LePage is blowing more smoke....he cannot close the schools as then he will lose federal money and that will create more of a problem. He needs to stop threatening people and doing his job...if the state is in that bad of shape then maybe he should forego his salary and his appointees should do the same...as we all know Poliquin has an income outside of state government and I have to wonder how many others are the same.

Jeff Bailey's picture

Stop the Scare Tactics

Come on Governor,

The safety net is so in jeopardy that you might have to close schools?! May 1?! But we had enough in the state coffers to go ahead and tell the wealthiest Mainers that we won't be needing as much tax money from them anymore? You can't tell me that there isn't some fat in Augusta that can be trimmed to make up for this shortfall.

How does cutting low income child care subsidies and Head Start funding help people find and maintain jobs? It doesn't. Let me lay it out for all of you scorched Earth conservatives out there.
1. Cut child care subsidies
2. Make child care too expensive for lower income Mainers trying to get work
3. Maine parents quit jobs because child care is too expensive and their minimum wage job can't cover it.
4. Parents apply for more welfare.

How is THAT going to save the state money? The pure stupidity of this plan is astounding!

Mark Elliott's picture

I remember LePage talking

I remember LePage talking about fraud AND over enrollment since day 1, even during his campaign. Where were you Mr. Carey?

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