Paul LePage stands firm against Medicaid expansion, says ‘our job is not done’

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Gov. Paul LePage acknowledges the audience Tuesday during his final State of the State address at the State House in Augusta, where he focused on issues that he has decided to champion in his last months in office. “Put your work boots on,” he said. (Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal)

AUGUSTA — A fired-up Gov. Paul LePage delivered his final State of the State address to a joint session of the Maine Legislature on Tuesday night, entering the House chamber after he shook a fist at protesters who were there to challenge his stance against a voter-approved measure to expand Medicaid to about 70,000 low-income Mainers.

LePage went on to speak for nearly 90 minutes in an address that touched on a broad range of subjects, especially homing in on issues that the Republican has decided to champion in his last months in office. They include trying to force nonprofit land trusts to pay fees in place of the property taxes from which they are exempt, and promoting a bill that would protect the elderly from foreclosure on their homes when they cannot pay their property taxes.

LePage repeated the story of Richard and Leonette Sukeforth of Albion, who lost their home to foreclosure in 2015. The Sukeforths were featured in LePage’s 2017 address.

“For the last seven years, my priority has been to make all Mainers prosper,” LePage said.

The governor’s Democratic opponents were swift to react after the speech, saying Maine was still an economic outlier nationally and that LePage is to blame.

“Tonight, Gov. LePage delivered more of the same – praise for himself, blame for others, and little effort to forge compromise and move Maine forward,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a prepared statement. “That’s exactly why, despite all of the governor’s rhetoric, Maine largely lags behind New England and the country in economic growth and why Mainers still feel like they can’t get ahead after seven years of his administration.”

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Maine’s Republican Party chairwoman, Demi Kouzounas, offered praise for LePage.

“There is no doubt Gov. LePage has strengthened Maine,” she said. “Whether it was cutting taxes and welfare rolls, seeing unemployment drop by over half, or beating a dangerous effort to limit Mainers’ Second Amendment rights, Maine is better off and stronger than it was when our governor first took office.”

About 150 proponents of a voter-approved expansion of the state’s Medicaid program disagreed, assembling in the State House lobby holding signs and chanting “health care now” as lawmakers and then LePage were escorted to the House chamber. LePage has been reluctant to move forward with the new law, vowing he won’t expand the program until lawmakers figure out how to pay for it. Cost estimates range from $50 million to $100 million a year.

He repeated his demands Tuesday, saying the Legislature must pay for the expansion without raising taxes, taking money from the state’s savings account or using one-time funding gimmicks, and first must fully fund programs for vulnerable Mainers who are waiting for services.

“Show me the money,” LePage declared.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible for the Legislature to demand we implement Medicaid expansion without adequate funding,” he said. “It is simply not too much to ask the Legislature to prioritize our truly needy over those looking for a taxpayer-funded handout.”

A PLEDGE TO SEEK PROGRESS UNTIL END OF TERM

LePage also took aim at the ballot process in Maine and at lawmakers who are influenced by lobbyists.

“Today, special interests continue to hijack our ballot box and politicians continue to kowtow to wealthy lobbyists and welfare activists,” LePage said.

He focused only briefly on what he sees as his administration’s accomplishments, but said he is far from finished. “Put your work boots on,” he said, “our job is not done.”

The governor’s speech also raised the issues of continued welfare reforms and state tax conformity with new federal law, and included a long broadside against nonprofit land trusts, which recently have become a favorite target of his criticism.

LePage also said lawmakers sent a mixed message on the age of adulthood in Maine when they raised the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, while 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military. “Young adults should be treated like young adults,” he said, repeating previous concerns that 18-year-olds should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to use tobacco.

Democrats were quick to note that LePage made no mention of Maine’s opioid crisis, which has seen an average of one citizen a day lose their life to a drug overdose. LePage controversially blocked access to the overdose antidote naloxone for more than five months after lawmakers and the Maine Board of Pharmacy approved over-the-counter sales of the antidote in 2017. The pharmacy board finally published the rules for naloxone this month after increasing the legal age to purchase it from 18 to 21.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, described LePage’s speech as “an example of the weak leadership we have seen over the last seven years.”

“I had hoped he would address all of the issues that were in front of us as well as recognizing what is going right and what we can build on in the future,” Gideon said. “But I felt there was a lot of pointing fingers and laying blame, as the governor is often quick to do, and very little accountability for what he has failed to do himself and the issues that are in front of us.”

CRITICISM FOR NOT MENTIONING OPIOID CRISIS

On the topic of Medicaid, Gideon said expansion is now the law and the governor is obligated to follow it. She said the Legislature – not the governor – will decide how and when additional funding is needed for expansion, and that new money may not be needed until 2019.

“There’s just no way the governor is ever going to want to do this, so the Legislature is just going to have to go forward and work together to come up with a plan,” said Sen. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who serves as minority leader.

Jackson also said the governor’s decision not to address the opioid crisis was a major omission. He also said the governor could have explained the closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Washington County, a decision he called “cowardly.”

But Republican Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, the House minority leader, was more pleased with the governor’s speech.

“The reality is, I think this was sort of a little bit of a wrap-up for the governor in terms of talking about the hard work that has been done over the last seven years,” Fredette said. “I think the message was ‘I’m not done until I’m done.’ He said, ‘I’m here until Inauguration Day.’ I expect he’ll be here and he’ll continue to be the very strong chief executive that he’s been for the last seven years.”

Fredette did not specifically criticize LePage for not mentioning the opioid crisis, but said he’s been disappointed that the Legislature had not done more. Fredette said the opioid crisis “really needs to be the top order of the next governor,” but that he doesn’t think the Legislature “will be up to passing anything that is meaningful.”

AUGUSTA, ME – FEBRUARY 13: Gov. Paul LePage gives his final state of the The State of The State address on Tuesday Feb. 13, 2018 at the Maine State House in Augusta. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan/Staff Photographer)

‘YOUR PROSPERITY IS ABSOLUTELY PARAMOUNT’

Known for speaking off the cuff, LePage frequently strayed from the text of his 16-page speech. He urged the public to “think long and hard” on who they will send to the governor’s mansion to replace him.

“You will be voting on whether to keep our taxes low and to maintain the right size of government, or to let special interests and public-sector unions raise taxes and bloat government,” he said.

Although LePage is serving his eighth year in office, the speech was only his seventh State of the State address. In 2016 he broke with tradition and delivered his remarks by letter after feuding with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the months before the address.

LePage closed his remarks Tuesday by retelling a now-familiar tale of his hard-luck childhood growing up on the streets of Lewiston after he escaped a violent and abusive father.

“Never once did I ever imagine that I would be living at the Blaine House, never did I imagine that I would ever be invited to the Blaine House,” LePage said, speaking more to Maine residents than the Legislature. “Maine people, we absolutely love you. Your prosperity is absolutely paramount to Maine’s success and we will fight for prosperity the rest of the way.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

Twitter: thisdog

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