AUGUSTA — The top two Democrats in the Legislature are calling Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s bluff on his repeated requests that lawmakers order a special session to provide more funds for Maine’s nursing homes.
In a July 14 letter to Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, LePage reiterated his call — which he first proposed in a bill submitted late in the legislative session — for lawmakers to take $5 million from a fund dedicated to health initiatives and give it to the state’s nursing homes.
“I urge you to take action on my proposal to fund nursing homes before another one is forced to close,” LePage wrote. “Our elderly should not have to live in fear, worrying if they will have a place to call home tomorrow.”
LePage’s bill was killed in the early morning hours of the last day of the legislative session, and Democrats remain uninterested in any plan that takes funding away from the Fund for a Healthy Maine. Alfond and Eves said Wednesday that if the governor wants to come up with a new plan, he should start the process now. They said they have not seen any new bill or proposal.
Alfond said in an interview Wednesday that LePage was “trying to govern through press releases and TV interviews.”
“If the governor wants to get in the game, he can show up, do the work, put a bill together, have the professionalism to call us and sit down to meet, explain the bill, give the Appropriations Committee members time to work the bill, and call us in [for a session],” Alfond said.
Since the legislative session ended, LePage and Republicans have attacked Democrats for refusing to call a special session to hammer out a deal. In the meantime, two rural nursing homes have closed, citing untenable finances and a lack of patients as causes for the closures.
Democrats have accused LePage of using the nursing home closures as an election tool. They point out that a bill approved this year to give more than $12 million to nursing homes went into law without LePage’s signature. A budget bill also included a total of $26 million in state and federal funds for nursing homes, and LePage vetoed it for reasons separate from the nursing home question.
LePage’s nursing home proposal was submitted to lawmakers the day before the session was scheduled to end. The one-time, $5 million payment would have drawn roughly $8 million in federal matching funds.
Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee, which would have had to approve the reallocation of state funds, worked late into the morning to come up with a deal, but there was an impasse. Majority Democrats on the committee did not want to raid the Fund for a Healthy Maine, opting instead to use $2 million from surplus for a one-time payment.
Legislative leaders and Appropriations Committee members from both parties said the word came from LePage’s office that the governor would veto that bill, so Democrats and Republicans agreed to kill the bill rather than push the measure through the House and Senate only to be vetoed by the governor.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Wednesday that he has faith that a deal could be reached. Still, he criticized Democrats for saying they would not call the Legislature back unless there was an “extraordinary occasion.”
“The governor is trying to tell them about this crisis. He’s trying to make the point there is an extraordinary occasion,” Fredette said. “We’ve had two rural nursing homes close. How many more have to close?”
Eves, the Democratic House speaker, said he was surprised by the level of urgency cited by the governor, who was unwilling to work out a deal with the Appropriations Committee, and Republican legislative leaders who agreed to kill the bill and go home.
“My concern is this was a choreographed election stunt,” Eves said. “We were on our way [to a deal] and the governor just said ‘no.’”
It costs about $43,000 to bring all 186 lawmakers back for a special session of the Legislature for one day. Subsequent days cost $38,000 each.
Rep. Kathy Chase, R-Wells, is the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee. She said as much work as possible should be done ahead of time by the governor, party leadership and appropriators before a special session is called.
“Whatever you can work out before we get to that point, so the taxpayer’s dollars aren’t spent irresponsibly, that’s what people are looking for,” she said.
Chase said she believed everyone in Augusta wanted to help the nursing homes, but that even with a lot of work, success isn’t a guarantee.
“Throw in the politics of the election year, and it’s like dropping all 186 of us on the roulette wheel, with the governor, and hoping we all land on the same number,” she said. “The nursing homes have been in trouble for a long time and we did a lot this year to work toward a solution. … (but) the process and this environment we’re in right now, it would be difficult in the best of circumstances.”