AUGUSTA — In a bizarre series of political maneuvers early Thursday morning, House Democrats managed to keep alive dozens of important bills that do everything from funding the administrative costs of Medicaid expansion to cutting taxes.
But in a show of resistance, minority House Republicans repeatedly blocked a longer extension of the legislative session and raised loud objections to the tactics used to keep the bills on life support.
Hours after the state Senate voted unanimously to lengthen the 2018 session by five days, House Republicans followed through on their threat to block the extension amid ongoing disagreements over Medicaid, taxes and planned minimum wage hikes. As midnight came and went, the House floor devolved into tense arguments over procedure as House Democrats used an obscure rule to effectively extend the proceedings into Thursday.
The Democratic-controlled House then voted 84-60 to “carry over” – or keep alive – dozens of bills until lawmakers meet again, likely for a veto-override session. But the events Wednesday and early Thursday exposed the deep partisan distrust between Democrats and the conservative House Republican caucus closely aligned with Gov. Paul LePage.
“We are now witnessing what is wrong with modern politics,” said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. “This is only creating a further divide.”
Democrats in the House and Senate, meanwhile, accused House Republicans and particularly Minority Leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, of scuttling agreements on spending and “tax conformity” for political reasons.
“Good governance depends on working across the aisle and making compromise to get things done for the people of Maine,” Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in a statement. “It is discouraging that one individual continues to play cheap political games with issues that actually affect people’s lives. When we came to Augusta, we made promises to Maine people, and Democrats are intent on keeping them.”
Meanwhile, State House hallways were filled with advocates and lobbyists concerned that dozens of spending proposals – many with bipartisan support – could fall victim to the political gamesmanship during a year when all 186 legislative seats and the governor’s mansion are on the ballot.
SIDES DIG IN OVER MEDICAID, TAXES
Two of the biggest points of contention, as expected, were over Democrats’ desire to earmark additional funding to pay for the administrative costs of voter-approved Medicaid expansion and LePage’s proposed package of tax cuts tied to federal tax reforms.
Many Republican lawmakers, particularly in the House Republican caucus, opposed Medicaid expansion before voters approved it at the ballot box and have resisted providing additional funding to move forward with expansion. Democrats, meanwhile, maintain there is no rush to make changes to Maine’s tax code this year in response to the federal tax reform passed by Congress and have dismissed LePage’s “tax conformity” package as heavily weighted to benefit the wealthy.
Unlike last year’s bitter fight over the budget, there was no risk of a government shutdown if lawmakers failed to reach agreement before midnight. But adjournment would have killed dozens of measures important to one or both parties. They include:
- An extension of the Pine Tree Development Zone program that provides tax incentives to businesses in exchange for the promise of new jobs.
- A LePage bill to help shield elderly homeowners from tax-related foreclosures.
- An emergency measure to ensure state police can transport ballots to Augusta for a ranked-choice voting tabulation during the June primaries.
- “Red flag” legislation that would allow judges to order individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others to temporarily relinquish their guns.
- $3.8 million to pay the administrative costs of Medicaid expansion.
- More than 100 bills approved by both chambers but requiring funding authorization from the budget committee as well as more than $700 million in requests for bonds.
Among those nervously watching Wednesday’s legislative brinksmanship were organizations that operate group homes for individuals with autism or intellectual disabilities. Last year’s budget included the first reimbursement rate increase in years for such facilities, thereby allowing them to offer pay raises to employees who provide direct care to clients. But because of last year’s budget constraints, lawmakers only funded the rate increase for one year while pledging to allocate additional funding this legislative session.
Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Progress Center in Norway, said without additional funding, group homes would have to cut the wages of employees who earn just above the minimum wage, cut services or worse. Those group homes care for 5,000 clients statewide and already face a wait list of nearly 1,600 people who cannot find space at a home.
“It would be difficult if not impossible to pull back those wages so we are left in a very difficult situation financially where we could see some group home closures and more clients languishing on wait lists,” said Putnam, who is also president of the board of the Maine Association for Community Services Providers.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, clearly frustrated members of the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee struggled to find a path forward on whether to divvy up the estimated $141 million budget surplus. But the meeting adjourned within an hour without resolution, although the four House and Senate committee leaders planned to continue negotiations.
COMPROMISE SPENDING PACKAGE
Democrats floated a $68 million spending package that they said represented a compromise for all parties. The package included: $5.2 million to address waiting lists for care for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, $6.7 million for a “hub-and-spoke” model for drug treatment, $11.1 million to address a funding shortfall for workers in long-term care facilities and $3.8 million to fund Maine Department of Health and Human Services positions to expand Medicaid.
The committee also has yet to consider more than 100 bills that passed the Legislature but need funding approval as well as more than $700 million in requests for bonds for everything from road repairs to student loan forgiveness programs.
Staff writer Scott Thistle contributed to this report.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: