AUGUSTA — The LePage administration on Friday was forced to reframe comments the governor made at a Lewiston forum when he said he would close public schools if the Legislature didn't ratify the cuts in his Department of Health and Human Services budget.
The governor's comments came Thursday night at the Green Ladle during his Capitol for a Day event.
LePage said, "A lot of Democrats still think we're fooling around and making political hay here. If I do nothing, on April 1 it's catastrophe for the state of Maine."
He went on: "Right now, in order to continue the way we are (and not make the DHHS cuts), I will close schools May 1 and use that money."
Article VII of the Maine Constitution prohibits the governor from closing public schools. And, he cannot order funding curtailment while the Legislature is in session.
Schools are statutorily required to hold 185 instructional days each year. While the state has issued waivers for that mandate, most are issued because of multiple school cancellations due to storms.
Those realities forced the LePage administration on Friday to clarify the governor's comments.
"When I heard that, I immediately took that to mean that not passing the budget could have a serious impact on schools," said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
Connerty-Marin added that if the DHHS cuts weren't passed, the money "had to come from somewhere." He said the Education Department, which comprises 40 percent of the state budget, would be a logical place for lawmakers to look.
"We can't take $200 million out of the Department of Marine Resources," he said.
Connerty-Marin said those who took the governor literally were misinterpreting what LePage said.
Others weren't so sure.
Democrats said the governor's comments were the latest example of LePage shocking people into giving him what he wanted.
"Making dramatic statements and presenting false choices distracts from real work and creates unnecessary fear in our communities," House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, said in a prepared statement.
She added, "These continued distractions will not put us any closer to solving the budget challenge. We urge the governor to focus on the facts instead of drumming up fear and blame.”
Democrats also took issue with LePage's comment that those who questioned his budget numbers were either "being dishonest to the Maine people or they can't count."
Democrats have questioned whether the administration is overstating the DHHS funding gap in order to advance a radical Medicaid overhaul. Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee have sought independent analysis to verify whether the administration's projections are one-time overruns or structural problems within the state's MaineCare program.
One-time overruns are a priority for Democrats, whose support will be needed to pass the budget proposal.
LePage has expressed frustration with lawmakers' call for that analysis from the Legislature's Office of Fiscal and Program Review. Officials have said they need additional time to analyze the data provided by DHHS.
On Thursday, Program Review staff provided more of that analysis. The independent office told the Appropriations panel that $18.2 million that DHHS officials had originally identified as structural was actually a one-time overrun.
DHHS officials have agreed with that finding.
Democrats contend that discovery justified the additional review that the administration is ready to act without.
The administration sought to clarify additional comments LePage made during his Capitol for a Day event in Lewiston. The governor told the audience that his Medicaid changes were designed to make Maine's offerings more in line with federal standards. LePage said MaineCare was too "generous" and encouraged residents to turn down private insurance even if they could afford it.
The governor said MaineCare eligibility standards allowed individuals earning up to 200 percent above the poverty line to qualify for benefits when the national standard is 133 percent.
That statement turns out to be a generalization that represents only a few of the state's Medicaid offerings.
According to DHHS, parents earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level can qualify for benefits. The governor's proposal is to reduce that to 100 percent of the poverty level.
Children in families making up to 150 percent of the poverty level are eligible for traditional Medicaid, and those making up to 200 percent qualify for the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Neither is proposed for reductions.
Currently, qualifying 19- and 20-year-olds can earn up to 150 percent of poverty level and remain eligible. The governor would eliminate health care for that demographic.
In the Medicare Savings Plan, otherwise known as drugs for the elderly, coverage for some populations extends to those earning up to 185 percent. The governor's proposal rolls that threshold back to federal standards, which range from 100 percent to 135 percent.
The Appropriations Committee continued reviewing the governor's budget on Friday. The panel is expected to continue that review next week.