Democrats issue symbolic rejection of LePage’s DHHS budget plan

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AUGUSTA — Democrats on Wednesday used a symbolic gesture to ratchet up their opposition to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed $220 million cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services.

After several work sessions and emotional public hearings, the governor’s budget proposal made its way into bill form on the first day of the second session for the 125th Legislature. However, Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the lead Democratic lawmakers on the committee responsible for working on the proposal, declined to sign the bill jacket, a break in formality that doubles as a tacit rejection of LePage’s bill.

Breaking with that tradition is not unprecedented. However, it goes against common practice among lawmakers in the minority, who typically sign bill jackets even if they plan to vote against the proposal.

Rotundo and Hill declined to comment on their decision. Democratic staff in the House and Senate leaders, speaking on the lawmakers’ behalf, said Rotundo and Hill had personal and moral objections to a proposal that could leave 65,000 Mainers without health care benefits. 

“Neither of them were comfortable putting their name on that document,” said Travis Kennedy, chief of staff for the House Democrats. “They know that this is not the most common way that the Appropriations Committee works and their entire goal is not to make a big deal about this.”

Kennedy said both lawmakers preferred that their decision didn’t become a news story.

That explanation is difficult to reconcile with an overtly symbolic gesture. However, Kennedy indicated that while Democrats were united in their opposition to the budget, some were divided about whether Rotundo and Hill’s decision should be publicized. 

Rotundo was also conflicted about signing the bill jacket. She initially signed it, but later removed her name from the proposal to show unity with Hill.

Kennedy said Senate Democrats might have a “stronger appetite” for publicizing the decision. 

“I think (Senate Democrats) consider this a rallying cry for their caucus,” Kennedy said.

Sens. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and Justin Alfond, D-Portland, acknowledged the break in tradition. However, they said, the governor’s proposal or method of delivering it wasn’t traditional, either.

Alfond said the governor had developed a habit of treating the Legislature as if it worked exclusively for him. He noted how LePage “stomped” into Appropriations last month and later expressed his displeasure that lawmakers were asking questions about his budget plan. 

“He sat there, scowled, got frustrated, went to the media and said, ‘I don’t know what the hell they’re doing,'” Alfond said. “From our perspective, that’s a break in tradition.”

Hobbins described the governor’s budget as being driven by ideology. He said the bill provided no plan for the people it would leave without health care benefits.

“The governor has put together a very irresponsible budget,” Alfond said. “Our Senate caucus said we cannot sign it. The House is on board with it.”

He added, “We understand this could have some ramifications within the Appropriations Committee, but I think (Hill) and (Rotundo) have explained that they are still willing to work with Republicans on the committee to produce a better plan.”

Democrats have yet to unveil a counter proposal. However, one could be forthcoming, according to House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono.

Cain said Democrats first need reliable numbers about the DHHS shortfall, including how much of the gap is driven by one-time overruns and which policies require structural changes. Those numbers are expected to be unveiled on Friday when Appropriations meets again.  

“You can’t build a counter proposal when you don’t have good numbers,” Cain said. “As we have demonstrated every step of the way, the entire year, we have always offered an alternative proposal to something we don’t like.” 

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Democrats were within their rights to make a symbolic statement.

“But at the end of the day, lawmakers in both parties have to sit down and work together to fix this problem,” Bennett said.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, was not available for comment. Jim Cyr, Nutting’s spokesman, said the speaker wanted to confer with Republican leaders before issuing a response.

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