AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage reiterated Tuesday that he'd prefer Republican lawmakers to use their majority power to adopt his budget, which eliminates government-funded health care for many low-income Mainers.
Republican leaders, however, continued to hope LePage would review the developing bipartisan plan before rejecting it out of hand.
Leaders in both parties confirmed Tuesday that lawmakers on the Legislature's budget-writing panel were close to a bipartisan deal to address the immediate shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services. House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said it was possible that the Appropriations Committee could vote on the proposal Tuesday evening.
That work continued despite comments made by the governor Monday during which he accused lawmakers of using gimmicks to close the $12o million budget gap at DHHS for fiscal year 2012. LePage on Tuesday doubled down on his intentions to veto a proposal that doesn't eliminate health care for about 18,000 childless adults receiving Medicaid, as well as for 19- and 20-year-olds.
Republicans and Democrats have sought other alternatives that would reduce eligibility for some of those programs and fund it by diverting funds from the dismantling of the Dirigo Health program.
However, the governor said Tuesday that those plans were unacceptable. Rather than work with Democrats, whom he believes were not negotiating in good faith, LePage said Republicans should use their majority power.
"I think we’re looking at it and saying at this point that there’s no other way," he said, adding that he didn't envision a compromise that he'd be able to support.
Although Republicans control both chambers in the Legislature, it didn't appear Tuesday that their caucus was completely united behind the governor's proposal. LePage acknowledged as much, saying that if lawmakers didn't adequately address the structural problems in Medicaid, he'd spend the rest of the year campaigning for GOP candidates who would.
"We’ll see what happens this week . . . but it may be a situation that I need to go out campaigning for the next year and ask the Maine people to send people (to Augusta) who are willing to work," he said.
It remained to be seen whether the governor would have to carry out his veiled promise to "primary" Republicans who don't back his budget. However, Nutting said he hoped LePage would first see the details of the compromise before rejecting it.
"It is our hope that once we strike a deal in Appropriations, we will be able to demonstrate to the governor and his supporters that the deal we were able to construct is preferable to the one he seems to be most interested in," Nutting said.
He added, "I would suggest that everyone wait and see what the plan is coming out of the Appropriations Committee. Maybe he’ll like it. Maybe it’s a better plan."
LePage said he believed Democrats were playing politics with the budget.
"I don't think they’re bargaining at all," he said. "I think the Democrats are sitting on their hands and the leadership of the Appropriations Committee has tried every angle they can trying to introduce some fixes. They’ve gotten to a point that what they’re working on now is totally unacceptable. It’s not going to fix Maine. It’s deceiving the Maine people."
The governor said Democrats had drawn a line in the sand. Negotiating with them was a failed exercise.
"The so-called party of the people is the party of a nanny state," he said. "This stuff that they’re doing now is politics. I despise it."
Nutting disagreed, saying that the budget proposal was a difficult one for both parties to grapple with.
"I don't think (Democrats) aren't bargaining in good faith," he said. "They’ve been at the table. They’re working. We’re this close. We’re very close to coming together with a consolidated package that I think is preferable to the one that the governor appears to favor right now. I just ask that he wait and see it."
Nutting also acknowledged the political realities of the budget crisis, which is coming during an election year and at a time when Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.
"We don’t want to do anything that’s perceived as a mistake and at the same time we want to hit a home run," he said. "At the end of the day, one party is not going to be to blame. We all share in what’s going to happen."
The plan expected to emerge from Appropriations would cut more than $140 million in spending and pay the Medicaid bills for the current budget. The proposal also uses $25 million in savings from the governor's streamlining initiative.
Even if lawmakers settle on a compromise, some difficult work lies ahead. Republican leaders on the Appropriations Committee said the consensus plan would buy more time to deal with more complex changes in fiscal year 2013.
Those proposals are described by LePage and some Republicans as structural changes. However, Democrats view such changes as running counter to their party ideology.